Metro Arts Theatre (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)


By Ovid

Amateur production

Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s (QSE) program for Ovid’s Metamorphoses promotes the company and its mission, provides the psycho-intellectual framework on which the production is structured and offers bios on the players and production personnel. However, in its undertaking to transform this ‘complex text into an exciting and easily accessible performance’, it does not reveal who is playing whom in what, in the poem-stories presented. Pity.

In a minimal setting, using a sheeted-plastic mound (a distracting mistake) and a collection of abandoned computer hardware to suggest the universality of the work, director Leah Mercer has chosen four pieces from Ted Hughes’ translation of 24 passages of Ovid’s more extensive original – Creation, Peleus and Thetis, Echo and Narcissus and Tereus. In most respects, the production succeeds in transforming the selected pieces into an accessible, energetically disciplined performance piece. Integral to the transformation is Gaven Edwards’ musical score and e-keyboard/percussion playing.

Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso, 43 BCE-17CE) is recognised as among the greatest of Roman poets. From its origins as an insignificant city state around 750BCE, by the time of the birth of Christ Rome’s empire extended from Egypt to the English Channel. Unlike Greece, it is remembered more for its roads, arched bridges, viaducts, imperial architecture, system of law and focus on public service, than on any esoteric preoccupation with the arts and sciences. Scholars suggest it expected the works of its poets to reflect its utilitarian civic values. But Ovid was not interested in celebrating and sustaining the Roman ideal. Forsaking a legal career and fuelled by a passion for love, abandoned women and mythological transformations (particularly into flora and fauna), and blessed with poetic prowess and a keen wit often directed at the prevailing gods, he fell foul of the establishment. In 8 CE, when he was about 50 years old, he was sent into exile and died nine years later.

Leaping from story to story with little connection, Metamorphoses describes the creation and history of the world in terms of Greek and Roman mythology. It remains one of the most popular works of mythology and has influenced poets and playwrights from Chaucer and Shakespeare to T.S. Eliot. It has been said of Ovid that ‘if others have written more deeply, few have written more colourfully.’

The production and performances capture that colour. Like the whole, the parts performed have little connection with each other. Like the original, the production exploits the iconoclastic humour overt and latent in the text even when the action is violently horrific.

Through blended elements of dance drama (sometimes repetitive despite the varying dramatic tensions of the stories), we witness a playful birth of the world through gymnastic use of a ball which later serves both as a new born child and a severed head. A ball of red thread also serves a multitude of dramatic purposes – a severed tongue and a woven message. Imaginative stuff!

In converting the verse to dialogue the actors speak in both the first and the third person and move effectively between the various characters each portrays. The performances are generally well balanced with only an occasional harsh use of volume for intensity in the confines of the venue. While I’m not personally opposed to the use of the General Australian accent in delivering dramatic verse, its limited tonal range should be recognised and addressed. Great verse deserves the best possible vocal instrument.

On the whole, however, QSE is to be commended for its dedication to the classics and its willingness to journey where others fear to tread.

Directed by Leah Mercer

Playing November 8 – 25, Wednesday – Saturday at 8pm.

Duration : 1 hour 10 mins, no interval

— Ron Finney
(Performance seen: Tue 7th November 2006)