Tuesday 12 October 2021

Theatre review: Metamorphoses

With the last few outdoor shows at Shakespeare's Globe still running, the summer season concludes by taking us back inside the Swanamaker for the delayed end result of the new Scriptorium project: Billed as the first time the Globe has had a team of writers-in-residence in 400 years, the first year of the project culminated in the team of Sami Ibrahim, Laura Lomas and Sabrina Mahfouz collaborating on a play that, appropriately enough, mixes the old with the new. The stories are almost as old as they get, with a collection of Greco-Roman mythology as collected by Ovid in his Metamorphoses; the storytelling style, treating the stories with a mix of respect and irreverence, is both fresh and well-suited to the intimate space. Sean Holmes and Holly Race Roughan direct a cast of four - Steffan Donnelly, Fiona Hampton, Charlie Josephine and Irfan Shamji - who tell some of the best-known, as well as some of the more obscure myths, especially those, as the title suggests, that feature their lead characters going through a magical transformation.

So we have humans turning into birds, spiders, dogs, in one case a god, and a surprisingly high number of trees. A lot of the stories are absolutely brutal in their violence, misogyny and gore; so it's almost a theatrical magic trick in itself that the cast can present them both with a sense of fun, and a respect for their darker moments.

Grace Smart's design turns the Swanamaker stage into a workshop, with a collection of tools hanging off the back walls as well as some more general props - these don't get utilised quite as much as you'd think, but a couple of the props do get taken off their hooks to reveal, usually grisly, new uses. The writing team have come up with a variety of storytelling styles, with the cast outright narrating some of the stories, acting others out in pairs, and in one memorably chaotic instance, Shamji going into full fanboy mode over Apollo to do a singalong about how King Midas was an idiot who got punished for disrespecting the god.

This is the story about Midas getting donkey ears, not the one where everything he touches turns to gold, and that's another thing to enjoy here if you have a decent, but not encyclopaedic, knowledge of the classics, particularly where the stories crop up in Greek theatre: Some of the stories are the well-known ones (like the one also told in The Bacchae,) but for Orpheus we get no trip to the Underworld, just the story of his bloody death. And while Hampton's Medea does add the famous infanticide as a postscript, her world-weary, middle-class witch focuses on one of the many other instances when she butchered a relative ("You know when you cut your husband's uncle to pieces and he doesn't even thank you?")

Dressed most of the time in all-white costumes, the better to show off the bloodstains, the cast bring a light touch of dark comedy to a lot of the grisly details, but they're also able to take things down a notch and play the genuine horror in a more expressionistic way: Donnelly and Josephine wolf down and spit out peaches while telling the story of two sisters horrifically abused, and even a rowdy audience half of whom seemed to be a school party were hushed for it. In what seem to be gaps the writers have left for the actors to ad-lib, we get snatches of their own stories; a nice touch when it suggests the way stories still frame the way we see life, although when it's explicitly used to draw parallels between women being silenced in Greek myth and #MeToo it feels a bit like it doesn't trust the audience to see the significance - if these stories have survived for millennia it's probably because people can relate them to their lives without hand-holding*.

But it does all add to a gloriously schizophrenic evening that celebrates the stories themselves as well as the storytelling process, and the techniques that are uniquely theatrical in revisiting old tales. There's a certain amiable level of audience participation, which together with the impression that the cast is occasionally winging it gives a relaxed atmosphere. Plus, if half the audience is an all-boys' school threatening to get lairy, there's nothing quite like casting one of them as the prophet Tiresias and asking about his sex-change for making sure they don't draw too much attention to themselves. Managing to be sombre where it needs to be, this is predominantly an evening of a lot of fun that glories in stories and how we share them.

Metamorphoses by Sami Ibrahim, Laura Lomas and Sabrina Mahfouz, inspired by stories from Ovid, is booking until the 30th of October at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Helen Murray.

*For instance Arachne's story sees her turned into a spider for telling the truth about a god: She refuses to thank Minerva for giving her her weaving talent, on the fairly solid basis that Minerva didn't give her her weaving talent, and is punished for it. I don't think it's a huge leap to say that speaking truth to power still doesn't always work out well today.

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