FringeReview UK 2021
Written by Sami Ibrahim, Laura Lomas, Sabrina Mahfouz, Co-directed by Sean Holmes and Holly Race Roughan, Designed by Grace Smart. Candle Consultant Simeon Miller. Till October 30th
Everyone’s in white against a throbbing yellow/red backdrop. After Sami Ibrahim’s ‘welcome’ Charlie Josephine cheerily sits down and says ‘it should be dark’, and it is. Creation myths aren’t what you’d normally go to Ovid’s Metamorphoses for, but though what these fourteen tales and epilogue (again Josephine) explore is often oblique, out of dark and candles. We’re slanted to legends not rewritten so much as retelling small episodes sloughed by a killing habit.
Let’s refresh. For one thing Josephine reminds us, these 2,000 year-old texts are of 2,000-years-old myths at the time Ovid wrote them. There’s a bit of licence.
Some pose as interludes preluding some bloody myth too well known. Sometimes the bloodiness in myths is elided, sometimes those interludes however brief play merry hell with laughter.
Written as the climax of a year-long residence at the Globe by Sami Ibrahim, Laura Lomas, and Sabrina Mahfouz, the dramatists manage a collaborative style at once winningly smart, audience-participatory, and enormous fun. Which, considering the subject-matter, is one way of looking at Medea for example: through her killing of Jason’s murderous uncle – Irfan Shamji squirms exsanguinating on the ground throughout. But gratitude? There’s a thing.
Co-directed by Sean Holmes and Holly Race Roughan, the design by Grace Smart involves tables with peaches shooting in and out, the back wall festooned with a light-yellow base on which items as diverse as dartboards, antlers’ heads and drills are placed, and one red ladder, the only item not emblematic of a story, since in No. 13 someone climbs it. Otherwise it’s a set whose presence is underused for so much care.
Above is so red-lit with white statues you don’t notice it at first. For candle consultant Simeon Miller there’s a feast of lighting, snuffing, relighting, the way stories are illumined and retold. The whole’s stripped back but on occasion horribly rich.
Charlie Josephine, Stefan Donnelly, Fiona Hampton, Irfan Shamji all bring a persona as storyteller as others join them. Josephine’s the artfully demotic comedian, Donnelly the straight man ripe for the gods, though occasionally turns this to advantage; Hampton the exasperated woman with dark resources, Shamji the killer clown from the start: ‘Welcome in, we’re about to start a banger.’
Some stories are so well-known they’re almost filleted. Others known are taken at angles, and it won’t matter if you don’t know a myth, these are compellingly lucid retellings, memorably nailed. And continually we’re brought up. So Josephine’s, ‘There he is, that motherfucker,’ of the Ciconian women ogling Odysseus gets the pay-off: ‘She said that, only in Greek.’
After a lightly-served Tiresias with one of us picked out by Shamji and blighted by Hampton, the next story of Procne and Philomela is perhaps the darkest – that’s where the peaches denote a revenge killing and eating, with Hampton and Josephine mesmerising. Shamji’s laughter throughout his brief retelling of Pentheus’ unfortunate encounter with Bacchus ends: ‘I told you it was funny’ upending Euripides. Donnelly’s affecting as Acteon. Hampton as the daughter who falls for her father is as affectingly tortured as her later after-work bar Medea is laconically forthright: ‘so I killed the kids and left’ is an afterthought.
For rapt stillness and slowly epic telling, there’s Josephine and Donnelly perched downstage centre on camping stools with a tea flask Josephine then offers to an audience member (there’s a lot of this, you’ll discover for yourself), becoming the generous couple Baucis and Philemon as they’re baffled by cloaked visitors, who’ve found no hospitality anywhere else. Woe to meanies. There’s strands of stories however familiar that jump out as new: as ever with these writers, gods are made even tricksier than Ovid dared. That’s what happens here in one of the finest Metamorphoses.
There’s even an appearance by Ovid’s then-patron and later banisher, Donnelly as Augustus; whose scaling the ladder of fame is in the service of his dead patron, Caesar, whose bust he straps to himself in a perilous twist – having proclaimed him a demi-god. A bit of home drilling and bust-switch, demi-godhead’s secured on a Black and Decker. After one more story Josephine’s ‘Want to hear just one more?’ is so cute and personal it must have been invited.
There’s been many Ovidian retellings, not least the magnificent Jermyn Street Production of 15 Heroines a year ago, with fifteen dramatists. This Metamorphoses has clarity, cunning, simplicity, panache and enormous appeal. There’s no production of any play I know that has the entire audience singing ‘drove my Chevvy to the levee but the levee was dry…’
Despite the dark tucked in to the Tenebrae of all those candles, there’s most of all a light-filled liberation, an invitation to revel in – as we’re told – the first production here since March 2020. As one who saw Women Beware Women a day before it prematurely closed for lockdown, that’s personal. But this 90-minute production will work its way into any memory, and the overriding sense, not surprisingly with these actors, is joy.