Metamorphoses

Sami Ibrahim, Laura Lomas and Sabrina Mahfouz
Shakespeare's Globe
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

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Steffan Donnelly and Charlie Josephine Credit: Helen Murray
Irfan Shamji as Achilles Credit: Helen Murray
Fiona Hampton as Hecuba Credit: Helen Murray
Steffan Donnelly as Emperor Augustus Credit: Helen Murray
Irfan Shamji as Phoebus Credit: Helen Murray
Charlie Josephine Credit: Helen Murray

Long delayed by COVID, this retelling of Ovid’s 2,000-year-old tales by the Globe’s writers in residence at last reopens this intimate candle-lit theatre.

The audience enter with electric working light to find the gold-patterned stage façade hidden behind pegboard that is hung with all manner of objects from a hot water bottle to a blue plastic lobster, a first aid kit, a guitar, a bucket and an assortment of tools. Some will be props in the evening’s stories and the dozens of others may have their own story if there was time to tell it.

After a cockney welcome back from Charlie Josephine, who tells us these ancient stories are “about what it means to be human, and to transform,” the lights go out. In darkness, we first have an account of creation until, when the gods add the sun, there is the click of a lighter and a flame returns and with light comes life on earth.

Now Irfan Shamji and Fiona Hampton start the stories, the style as chatty and cosy as an old Jackanory but the subjects involving sex and bloodshed and the swearing are a far cry from children’s telly. They begin with one in which Jupiter and Juno are arguing about who gets the most out of sex: men or women. While waiting for Tiresias to turn up (he’d been both you’ll remember) to give an opinion, they sound out some of the audience.

Rather than being acted out, the 14 tales that are retold are largely narrated, though often by their participants and with dramatic illustration. Steffan Donnelly supplies Acteon’s screams as he is torn to pieces by his own hounds after being turned into a stag by Diana, Irfan Sahamj the howls of Pentheus in pig form as the followers of Bacchus dismember him. As Donnelly tells the story of sisters Procne and Philomela, Charlie Josephine underscores the way Tereus silences raped Philomela in the way he is eating. Fiona Hampton as Hecuba assembles bloody bones, almost snarling as she recounts her revenge for the loss of her children.

There is witch Medea (Fiona Hampton), Arachne (Donnelly) pitting her talent against goddess Minerva before being turned into a spider, a rueful Achilles (Sahami), Phaeton demanding that he drive Phoebus’ chariot and more all told compactly, sometimes they are gruesome but buoyed up with humour.

After that opening blackout, Sean Holmes and Holly Race Roughan’s production may seem a little low-key, but with these performers it grows on you. This Metamorphoses will have you joining in a sing-along but do those adding their voices to “American Pie” realise they are doing it to drown out the music of Orpheus so that his magic doesn’t stop the stones the Ciconian women are throwing from killing him? By then, the audience is having such a good time they couldn’t care anyway!

On the one hand, this is a succession of stories featuring violence against women and female revenge; on the other, it targets our laughter. They are tales that predate #MeToo by millennia, but they are still potent and they are served up delightfully.

Metamorphoses will also be live-streamed on 29 October (7:30PM) and 30 October (2:30PM).

Reviewer: Howard Loxton