Review: Metamorphoses, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse ★★★★★

“We’re gonna tell you some stories tonight.”

The lights go out and we begin the first of our stories in the pitch black of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, with only spoken words to weave not just the beginning of the play, or the beginning of Ovid’s 2000 year old stories, but the beginning of the world itself – Creation.
We come out of the darkness of  Creation and into a world full of candlelight and the tale of Jupiter and Juno. From here we weave our way from story to story with our quartet of actors, Charlie Josephine, Steffan Donnelly, Fiona Hampton and Irfan Shamji, taking the roles of the God’s and their subjects.

Stefan Donnelly and Charlie Josephine. Photo: Helen Murray
The beauty of this play is that it is based on a foundation of good storytelling. There is no one thread that ties these fifteen tales of Ovid together other than the key thread of sharing stories. There are common themes and motifs throughout; the centuries old cruelty of the Gods and metamorphosis, but also the more relevant references to sexual violence, and power – who has it and who misuses it.
Most of our scenes are the four actors telling us what happened, rather than showing us. It is a testament to the quality of the writing by Globe writers-in-residence Sami Ibrahim, Laura Lomas and Sabrina Mahfouz, and the quality of the acting across the cast, that this is as enthralling as witnessing first-hand Medea’s murders or Arachne’s weaving dual with Minerva.
Steffan Donnelly and Charlie Josephine are particularly good throughout. The best stories here feature just the two of them onstage together. As the homely Philemon and Baucis who are surprised to find their strange evening guests are Gods, they deliver a portrait of a couple who need only each other. At the other end of the scale, the shocking story of Procne and Philomela is perfectly delivered by the pair as they sit on opposite sides of a table with a bowl of apricots between them, Josephine using the fruit gluttonously to produce horrific imagery to match Donnelly’s visceral description of Tereus’ depravity. “Some silences, they last forever,” Josephine tells a silenced auditorium.
Fiona Hampton. Photo: Helen Murray
Metamorphoses is not quite a normal theatrical production given its four cast members, three writers and two directors (Holly Race Roughan and Sean Holmes), but it is one that works on almost every level. It is very often funny, constantly entertaining, frequently gripping and, at times, heartbreaking. Across the fifteen tales we experience almost every emotion you could expect to experience in a theatre. There is the odd miss-step – a song about Midas is not quite as Flight of the Conchords-like as was probably aimed for, and the tone is very occasionally pedagogical – but these are few and far between in what is an otherwise tremendous evening of theatre.
The staging tonight sees props line the back wall of the playhouse. Some are to play key parts in the action, some will play no part at all – for another untold story, perhaps. But again, in the way that simple storytelling steals the show, it is simple candlelight which adds real beauty to the staging. The candles are extinguished and relit and extinguished again as we move from scene to scene, story to story, and, in the end, we hear one last beautiful love story, seemingly plucked from reality this time, by the light of a single lighter – and again into darkness.
Metamorphoses is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe Theatre until 30 October. Also Live Streamed on Friday 29 October, 7:30pm and Saturday 30 October, 2:30pm.