‘Dispute it like a man’ ‘I shall do so, but I must also feel it as a man’ Act IV, Scene III, Macbeth
It would be hard to find a show on right now that has as much energy, depth and laughter as the Bristol Old Vic Young Company and The Wardrobe Ensemble bring to their version of Hercules. And it is very much their version. Set in an after school club for ping pong (stick with me), the play centres around Coach Zeus, an over ambitious father who instills a damaging life ethic into Hercules. The show opens with a vibrant, energetic rap and the leading vocalists have hand held microphones; we are far from Thebes: in a land where the jokes are about Nintendo switches and the millennial snowflake.
The cast themselves are phenomenal - what director Helena Middleton has managed with them is truly a triumph. And not because they’re the ‘Young Company’ (in some scenes you feel as though you could be watching professionals), but simply because approaching a complex topic like masculinity is such a Herculean task. The cast are carried around the ping pong table, lifted into the air: the staging is clever yet simplistic. The use of ping pong bats, for example, as hooves, food platters, or even as an ‘especially large GM crop’ keeps the theme of sport, of competition, alive.
A few of the performances lack a certain understanding or experience which is, of course, unavoidable with a group so young. For me, the role of Hercules in particular was in need of more gravitas. Hera and Zeus are a true power couple, particularly Hera- who, dressed in a suit and with all the fiery hair of Disney’s Merida, is played with a maturity beyond her years. A particularly funny moment - in a show of heavy themes- was when Hera kneed Zeus during a domestic and his (ping pong) balls fell to the floor. Hercules’ best friend Ty is played with wonderful warmth and sensitivity and acts as a foil to Hercules’ struggles with self-expression. In Ty we find a new level to this play: the importance of male friendship and connection. Some scenes display true depth, particularly when Ty advises Hercules that ‘real men have the courage to be who they want to be’.
The actors and the overall production sometimes seem better than the piece itself; the second act tended to drag a little, and the introduction of the gym - where Hercules finds strength and falls in love - didn’t quite land, despite its obvious confrontation of traditional, masculine virility. However, heartfelt moments are easily come by. (Spoiler alert), whilst driving home with his family, Hercules is involved in a car crash which kills both his wife and his children. This was when the real drama started: we had truly come to care for Hercules and we were gripped by this sudden turn of events. What would this terrific blow do to our hero? The sensitivity with which the play tackles suicide is admirable and we really do feel the weight of regret and guilt that looms over Hercules’ head.
The show has much to offer and it is particularly moving to note that the majority of the audience members are the younger siblings of the actors. As Hercules is lying on his deathbed (fittingly, a ping pong table), he admits to his wife Deianira that he ‘couldn’t open up to her’ because ‘it hurt too much’. Whatever we find in this show, let’s hope that its young cast and audience will take forward the show’s message: relationships and indeed all of life ‘can’t work if you don’t talk’. Luckily, this show does.