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."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
    Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

    That's a bit rich

    The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
    Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
    Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

    Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

    Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
    A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

    Britain's Atlantis

    Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

    David Starkey's assessment
    Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

    'An enormous privilege and adventure'

    Oliver Sacks writing about his life
    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
    Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

    Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

    Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests