These Modern Ovid Tales Are Far Too Direct
By reopening Shakespeare’s Globe’s indoor Jacobean auditorium, this selection of stories by Roman poet Ovid shatters the old and the modern.
A trio of playwrights – Sami Ibrahim, Laura Lomas and Sabrina Mahfouz – reinvents familiar material with an eye on current socio-politics: There are nuances of #MeToo in accounts of rape and abuse by kings and conquerors, and staggering accounts of statues and class inequalities in rebellions against tyrannical gods.
Sometimes it’s too blunt, as if writers don’t trust their audiences to point out parallels without heavily underlining. And at its highest level, Sean Holmes and Holly Race Roughan’s production feels like over-enthusiastic children’s television, with added swear words. But the four actors are attractive and there is an enduring power in these tales.
They are played in front of a wall covered with junk – gardening tools, darts, guitar, boxing gloves. These mundane props invoke a world of magical transformation, full of music, conflict, rivalry, and miracles of nature.
Grace Smart’s design also includes marble busts and a scarlet ladder ascending to the gallery from a blood-red stage. The actors – with the exception of a ghostly Achilles (Irfan Shamji), clad in full armor and speaking to us, amid bulky smoke from the Underworld – are all dressed in white.
An opening creation myth begins in the inky darkness, gradually twinkling in the light with the lighting of the theater candelabra. From there, we launched into a clothes rack of stories, zigzagging between the comic and the tragic.
It is mainly the heavier sequences that deliver. Hecuba of Fiona Hampton, her slaughtered children, collects body parts dripping from a bucket and is transfigured before our eyes as, growling and screaming, she is transformed by her agony and fury into a dog.
The rape of Philomela, and the cutting of her tongue to silence her, are conveyed with nauseating and suffocating horror by Charlie Josephine gorging on ripe fruit and spitting them out on plastic sheeting.
In contrast, a few chants – a chorus of vocals throwing themselves into “American Pie” to drown the conceited Orpheus, and an acoustic number lashing out at stupid Midas – slightly cringe.
Steffan Donnelly’s portrayal of the gifted weaver Arachne – destined to become a spider – as an ambitious artist has wit and charm, and Shamji makes a playfully touching Achilles, pouring out platitudes about self-care and pondering the damage caused by toxic masculinity and a childhood he was trained to kill and destroy.
Other moments, such as too brief an appearance of a Medea suited to power, seem wasted and the general didactic tone can be irritating. But, even cluttered with allusions, these stories speak to us and still bewitch us.
As of October 30 (020 7401 9919)