This post is part of a series where I talk about programmes I have collected over the years and the productions they represent. This week, I have three programmes, all from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and all for shows which referenced the ancient world in one way or another.
First, two versions of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, both from 2010. The white programme is Yvonne Arnaud Youth Theatre’s production; the black is by Pants on Fire, a company of Rose Bruford College graduates. (And, yes, that is Michelle Dockery’s sister Jo – she made a wonderful Juno, as I recall, very queenly).
(Content warning: the Metamorphoses contains a lot of things that may be triggering. Discussions of rape and violence are coming up. I also talk about the story of Tiresias, whose sex is changed by the gods without his consent, so if you would prefer not to read about that, skip to the ‘end of triggers’ note.)
The strongest two memories I have of the Yvonne Arnaud YT’s production are really one memory: that it was bloody scary. More specifically, (1) the performance space was a small, stark, black-bricked cell of a room, and (2) the story of Procne, Philomela and Tereus was portrayed with astonishing power.
For those who aren’t familiar with the Ancient Greek myth as told by Ovid, Procne and Philomela are sister princesses in Athens. Tereus, a ‘barbarian’ Thracian, secures Procne’s hand in marriage and, when little sister Philomela visits them in Thrace, Tereus imprisons and brutally rapes her before cutting out her tongue so that she can’t speak of her violation. A few other things happen (you’ll just have to read Ovid) and eventually the three are all transformed into birds, but my memories of how this company told the story are dominated by Tereus. The actor who portrayed him radiated a seething violence that went beyond blustery theatrics, meaning that the rape, which occurred on the stage floor practically at the feet of the front row, was truly heart-rending to watch.
I remember little else, but frankly, that is enough. In common with the other Metamorphoses, though, the darkest of stories shared space with comedy in a way that felt very true to Ovid’s poem – his scope is universally vast. While Yvonne Arnaud YT kept the ancient setting, however, Pants on Fire transported the audience to WWII-era Britain. This programme has pictures of propaganda posters and 1940s movie stars, along with notes about the ideas of ‘hero’, ‘monster’, ‘god’ and ‘goddess’ in that turbulent period of history.
I remember the production as very visually appealing – all elegant 1940s silhouettes and a vintage record player, with Jo Dockery as that imperious, RP-spouting Juno and Tiresias the gender-bending prophet in period bathing suit and cap. Music played a significant part in both establishing the wartime setting and moving the action forward, such as when Tiresias’ transformation from male to female by the gods was performed as a dance. Two actors performed the dance together as Tiresias, signifying the fragmentation of his identity as he became the plaything of the gods. Although in some ways it might have been a greater challenge to have a single actor play Tiresias both before and after the transition, this allowed for some great comedy during the dance, where the two actors stood behind a black staging panel and stuck their arms and legs out around the sides. Making the portrayal of Tiresias’ transformation somewhat comedic was in itself quite thought-provoking and I’m still interested in the ideas about gender identity that were played with in that scene.
(end of triggers)
From the sublime to the ridiculous: the final Classics-themed programme I have for you is from When in Rome, a musical comedy set in the late Republican/early Imperial period, performed by The Cambridge Fools in 2010. Rather than inspiring the performers with his writing, Ovid actually appeared as a character in this show, a babe-magnet medallion man dropping beats and rhymes in a vulgar yet brilliant way. How true to life this is depends on which Ovid scholar you ask, but I think the consensus would probably be that it is close enough. He was sort of the Kanye West of his time.
‘Veni, vidi, scripsi musicalem comoediam’, proclaims the back of the programme, which gives an impression of the Latin-students’-skit atmosphere that this show aimed to cultivate. But alongside the jokes for Classics nerds, there was the bawdy, silly comedy of the musical numbers, many featuring elaborate disco routines to accompany the 80s/90s soundtrack. The music was ably provided by a band in full costume – The EllaFunks – and the company slick and very funny.
As my tendency to lovingly poke fun at Ovid may tell you, Classics is one of my favourite things to talk about, particularly in a theatrical context where companies can play around with some of the basis of Western civilisation in the name of fun or in a spirit of inquiry. My other pet subject, Shakespeare, will feature in the next edition of Get with the Programme (yes, that’s what I’m calling it, sorry). But before that, I will be reviewing a production of Romeo and Juliet that I’m really looking forward to. Until then!