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Arts: Unchanging appeal

Ovid's tales of dizzying change have themselves been endlessly adapted. Now Ted Hughes's version of `Metamorphoses' is reassessed for the stage. Paul Taylor looks at a classic text with an unvarying attraction
It's all change and never a dull moment in the world of Ovid. A raped girl finds herself released into the sky as a nightingale. Her brutal assailant mutates into a hoopoe. That oozing tree over there is a lust-consumed minx who successfully plotted to have sex with her deceived and then horrified father.

Meanwhile, a headstrong lass challenges Minerva, the goddess of weaving, to a contest. Her aim is to prove the unbeholden superiority of human skill, but she winds up transformed into the original spider - that cruel, miniaturised parody of spinning self-sufficiency.

It's the urbane, mischievous lightness of touch with which Ovid handles all this atrocity, all these tortured in extremis situations, that accounts for the recent powerful revival of his appeal.

And the idea that his sensibility somehow chimes with contemporary values was richly substantiated in 1994 by After Ovid. In this landmark collection, a wide range of distinguished present day poets - from old hands such as Seamus Heaney and Les Murray to young guns such as Glyn Maxwell and Simon Armitage - rose vigorously to the challenge of reflecting on and then re-interpreting the myths in Ovid's Metamorphoses.

But the star of this volume was undoubtedly the late Ted Hughes, who contributed distinctive versions of four of the stories - and found that he couldn't stop.

Teamed with Ovid, he teemed with magnificent poetry. The resulting Tales from Ovid, a collection of 24 archetypal Hughesian interpretations, went on to become a best seller and the winner of the 1997 Whitbread Book of the Year.

And tomorrow night it takes to the stage at the Swan Theatre in a new adaptation by director Tim Supple and the literary manager of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Simon Reade.

Meeting Supple in Stratford, I remark how fitting it is that Hughes' Ovid should find itself dramatised under the aegis of the RSC rather than, say, at the National or the Young Vic (where Supple is artistic director). Shakespeare is, after all, steeped in his Roman forebear.

Supple takes up and develops the point, commenting that: "The ghosts of Shakespeare's plays flit through the Metamorphoses."

Supple's comment is an intriguing instance of our deep instinctive sense of Shakespeare's primordiality, for - chronologically speaking - it is of course Ovidian wraiths who waft through the Bard's oeuvre.

Take Titus Andronicus, the first Shakespearean tragedy. Its grot-esque story of vicious rape and mutilation, followed by a revenge plot involving the consumption by the aggressor of a pie containing his offspring, is intimately indebted to Ovid's treatment of the "Tereus and Philomela" myth which forms part of the RSC evening.

Shakespeare is not much given to "product placement" in his plays, but a volume of the Metamorphoses actually makes an appearance at a crucial moment in his plot.

And it is the chosen bedtime reading of even a late heroine such as Imogen in Cymbeline. So Stratford is indeed, symbolically, the perfect venue for this staging.

But why dramatise Hughes's superbly re-imagined passages of Ovid in the first place? Isn't it an impertinence to presume that one can add anything to the experience of a poetry that drives itself as powerfully and delicately into all the angles of desperation as this does?

Take the passage where Hughes enters the psyche of Myrrha, a girl who - wilfully pregnant by her father and now caught between fear of death and shame of living - is frantic to subside into the "nerveless limbo" of becoming a tree.

The sensational paradox of the process by which her "swollen womb" becomes "coffined" in the "gnarling crust" of bark that "swarms" and "warps" over her is rendered with a shocking immediacy. The tree weeps myrrh, the "meaty fruit" in her womb ripens, "But Myrrha's cramps are clamped in the heart- wood's vice./Her gagged convulsions cannot leak a murmur."

As a way of communicating through compression the tortuous and inextricable mutual involvement of the girl's moral and physical plight, it would be impossible to improve on that cluster of terse puns: "gagged" is at once "choking with pain and shame" and "silenced"; "leak" signifies both "ooze" and - in one of the many deft touches through which Hughes puts a subliminal modern spin on the proceedings - "surreptitiously disclosed", as in a government leak.

Tim Supple is one of our leading exponents of narrative theatre - a reputation established by his two celebrated adaptations of Grimms' Tales at the Young Vic, where the spare elemental staging, fluent knockabout ensemble and exotically defamiliarising live music ripped the euphemistic wrappings off these fierce folk stories.

But if he finds my question about impertinence itself impertinent, he's not letting on. It isn't a matter of supposing you can add to Hughes's Ovid, he maintains, but of "providing a different way of enjoying" these myths. There is evidence, Supple continues, that the Roman poet wrote them to be read aloud in company.

And as John Dryden, an 18th-century forerunner of Ted Hughes both as Poet Laureate and as an excellent adapter of Ovid, remarked, the Roman poet's genius for depicting "the various movements of a soul combating betwixt two different passions" would have made him the pre-eminent theatre practitioner "had he lived in our age".

That's another of the intriguing affinities with Hughes. He, too, is in a sense the great poetic dramatist we never quite had. The experimental collaborations with Peter Brook in the Seventies on projects such as Orghast, where Hughes invented a phonetic language that tried to skirt conceptual meaning, did not lead on to richer inaugurative theatre pieces.

Instead, it went on to produce vivid adaptations: Supple himself directed the Ted Hughes versions of Lorca and Wedekind.

It's a piquant irony that we may be about to experience Hughes' theatrical genius at its most Shakespearean (albeit through a process that seems to bypass playwriting altogether) in the modern poet's heightening of what is Shakespearean in Ovid.

Supple identifies this as the parallelism of the sacred and profane, the tendencies that in ancient Roman times reached their extremes in the gladiatorial arena and the crucifixion.

The director promises that in this theatrical version, as with Shakespeare, "the words will lead everything". No flashy tricks will upstage the poetry. The transformations will be simple and beguiling. Thus, when Midas turns everything he touches to gold, Bacchus and his crew will mischievously swap what he is holding for a glittering substitute. Myrrha's mutation into a tree will be a gradual mummification.

These days, Ovid's poetry is frequently described as "filmic" because of the speed of its changing images. But I remarked to Supple that I could not envisage anything worse than, say, a cartoon treatment of these myths - where any sense of friction and resistance to change would vanish in all the slickness of a glib technical facility.

The director concurs, adding that, "the point of the transformation is that what happens to the characters is not total change. Something persists. Look at Arachne, perhaps more than ever herself when she is a spider."

The same is true of all the many poets who, in reinventing themselves in Ovidian terms, succeed in throwing into relief their own distinctive poetic personalities.

In the context of the Metamorphoses this could be said to constitute an amusingly rarefied instance of: "The more things change, the more they remain the same."