A Metamorphoses of its own
The events of the past 12 months have had a transformative effect on our new adaptation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. We talk to the Writers and Co-directors about the show’s evolution
The inaugural Scriptorium residency – the first time that the Globe has had resident writers in 400 years – started in the winter of 2019.
Originally intended to last a year, the three playwrights involved in the initiative – Laura Lomas, Sami Ibrahim and Sabrina Mahfouz – have for the past year-and-a-half been working with Co-directors Holly Race Roughan and Sean Holmes on an adaptation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
With the play originally intended to run from 4 September to 3 October 2020, the first national lockdown began just as rehearsals were due to start. Shifting from twelve actors to four, moving from the Globe Theatre to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, and at one point being considered for a digital iteration, the show has undergone immense changes over the past year. “I think there’s an irony, and it is not lost on any of us, that the heart of Metamorphoses is transformation,” says Race Roughan.
Written by one of Rome’s great poets, Ovid’s Metamorphoses is a single poem comprising 15 books. Drawing upon the Greek and Roman literary traditions, the work – written in Latin hexameter – is considered an epic in terms of form and rhythm. Over the course of the Metamorphoses, the poet recounts 250 stories from the creation story through to Ovid’s contemporary moment. “Even though the texts are so ancient, I think there’s something very human that is kind of eternal”, says Lomas.
Unparalleled in his influence over European art, echoes of the great poet can be heard in the work of the great bard. The stories range widely in tone and subject matter, from the retribution of a father who repeatedly sells his shapeshifting daughter as a cow, to the genesis of the Theban people after Cadmus plants the teeth of a serpent he has slain in the ground. It is a challenging subject matter both in terms of size and variety. “I’m excited for a live performance that tells stories more surreal than our last year has been,” says Mahfouz.
The initial plan to develop the show was to have a group of actors improvising to stimuli, which the writers would watch and then respond to in workshops. The pandemic necessitated a rethink. “We had to flip the process,” says Race Roughan. Scheduling check-ins every couple of weeks with the writers, Race Roughan and Holmes would send out bi-weekly provocations for the writers to respond to. One week, for example, the prompts focused upon pop culture – “stuff like which story might best explore this music video, or which story may best explore this meme,” Race Roughan explains.
With Race Roughan and Holmes acting, as she puts it, ‘as provocateurs more than directors’, the writers found the experience invigorating. ‘For me, that felt quite liberating; instead of trying to fill it with something that felt polished and precise, it was like we all had permission to just go an write quickly and instinctively’, says Lomas. ‘It’s been brilliant to see how everyone adapts and interprets completely differently,’ Mahfouz adds. Through this process the team collated several hours of materials that could then be ‘taken into workshops and gradually distilled’, says Ibrahim, something he found useful in accessing a text that he found to be dense at first – a sentiment shared by Mahfouz.
“The original text shifts tones and styles so much that it feels right to have three writers who are quite different.”
— Sami Ibrahim, Writer
Two workshops were able to go ahead at the Globe, one in September and one in November – an experience that Mahfouz describes as “unexpectedly emotional”. “That’s what you’re writing for, whatever medium it is; you’re writing to get to the bit where actors are speaking the words and you can see images and worlds being created,” says Ibrahim.
It’s a dynamic that could be intimidating for the writers. However, the atmosphere was, according to Lomas, supportive. “There was a generosity of spirit,” she says. “It felt quite fun, actually, and just quite freeing at a moment where we were all just in our private spaces.” The mix of styles presented by the different writers gels with the source text.
“We threw those drafts against the wall, like spaghetti, to see what was sticking,” says Race Roughan. The process helped to shape the tone of the piece as well as the scope, with 15 or so stories becoming the focus. “Our first drafts were all quite arch and a bit glib; they were all a bit self-aware,” says Ibrahim. “We realised all the stuff that referred to 2020 was kind of detracting from the stories themselves. And bit by bit we stripped that away and got to the emotional heart of the story.”
Having established that “the most straightforward and straight-up versions of the stories were what was working best,” the team gained a new appreciation for the power of Ovid’s narratives, says Race Roughan. “There’s something deeply contemporary, actually, about the things that he’s writing about,” adds Lomas. “You don’t have to angle it into a thing. You can just let it speak for itself.” Ibrahim highlighted the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, whose family rivalries mean their love is forbidden. This story – a significant source for A Midsummer Night’s Dream – has what he terms “an emotional knottiness”.
Another tale is the myth of Phoebus, the sun god, and his son Phaeton, something Lomas explored. Phaeton, seeking proof of his divine lineage, asks to drive the chariot of the sun for a day. Phoebus tries to convince his son that it is mortally dangerous as the horses who pull the chariot are too unruly. Unable to dissuade his son from trying, he watches Phaeton lose control of the chariot and fall to his death in the river Eridanos, scorching the Earth in the process. Phaeton’s epitaph, according to Ovid, read: “Here Phaeton lies who in the sun-god’s / chariot fared. And though greatly he failed, more greatly he dared.” It’s a story that captures that “emotional knottiness”. It could be read as “a story referring to climate change”, says Lomas. “But it also feels like he’s talking about a really tender story about a foolish boy and his dad.”
Though trying at times, working on a project such as this through the pandemic has had some positives. “I’ve felt incredibly lucky to be able to have it and structure my days around it,” says Lomas. This time has also given space to “percolate”, says Race Roughan. “Being able to sit with an original source text like that over such a long period of time is invaluable.” And ultimately, there’s an excitement to share the work with new audiences.
“I love Ovid’s work, but I didn’t feel able to access it until my 20s, so I’m excited about teenagers and young adults watching this show and feeling inspired to explore his work and other Latin classics,” says Mahfouz. Race Roughan adds: “[Artistic Director] Michelle Terry has been so clear and kind of wonderful about going, ‘This is a new work, it’s responding to now, it’s responding to the past, we’re going to make this happen come what may.’”
Metamorphoses opens 30 September 2021 and runs until 30 October 2021.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2021 edition of Globe magazine and is one of the benefits of being a Member of Shakespeare’s Globe.
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