Not many plays start with a sung invocation of a muse and although the singing itself wasn\’t perfect by any means the thought that went into its inclusion is representative of the blend of traditional storytelling elements and modern translation which the Hecate Theatre Company has achieved. Metamorphoses is set in a Victorian boarding school after lights out. A group of girls about to be received in society as women for the first time are too excited to sleep and so relive their childhood by acting out stories. Each tale chosen by one of the girls is about abortive love, such as those of Myrrha who found every suitor a disappointment compared to her father, Echo rejected by Narcissus, and of Tereus who by raping his sister-in-law destroyed an entire family. However, a contrast is made by the tale of Arachne narrated by the matron as a morality tale to teach her charges modesty.
You might expect a play based on stories which involve magical transformations to be a lavish spectacle. However, in Metamorphoses the focus throughout was on characterisation and connecting with the audience through the power of the drama alone. That said, there were some simple and effective moments where with only shadows cast on a backlit sheet Arachne grew four extra limbs and Tereus cut out Philamela\’s tongue. The totality of the set comprised of one chair, four pillowcases and five sheets including that used for shadow-casting; remarkably, this was not only sufficient but a perfect way in which the production brought to life the atmosphere of a children\’s game by requiring the audience to imagine that the sheet was a cloak or a snake and therefore insuring the emotional investment of those watching.
Much of the frisson generated by the production was through the combination of evoking childhood games alongside the mature content of the stories and occasionally vulgar language. Occasionally the dialogue seemed as though it was trying too hard to shock and modernise these ancient fables, but this again evoked the uneasiness and desire to impress experienced by teenagers desperate to prove that they\’ve left childhood behind. Â The presence of the matron\’s character throughout as an often silent observer was a useful way of generating leniency among audience members at crucial moments.
My friends who were previously unaware of a few of the fables narrated in the play thought that perhaps some rather sensationalist stories had been included, with particular surprise generated by that of Myrrha with its incest and eerie chanted refrain of ‘Father, Father none of them do. None of them in quick black shoe.\’ However I found the spread of tales and transformations representative of the widest possible range of relationships and representative of Ovid\’s ‘epic\’ in general. It was a sympathetic and selective re-imagining of the work which allowed for the development of the characters of the storytellers above all else.