Theatre: When your girlfriend turns into a tree

Click to follow
IN BEN Jonson's great comedy, Volpone, currently in the Swan Theatre's repertoire, the hero hits on a kinkily novel chat-up line. Their lovemaking won't be dully tied to single identities, he brags to the girl. Instead, constantly changing shapes, the pair will "act Ovid tales" now becoming Jove and Europa, now Mars and Ericyne, until they have "quite run through,/ And wearied all fables of the gods". By a nice irony, in the same Swan venue, the tales of the Roman poet are now being literally acted out in a new stage adaptation of Ted Hughes's brilliant, scandalously immediate renderings of the myths in the Metamorphoses. With the right elusive mix of pungency and playfulness both Hughes's poetry and this theatrical version do vivid justice to these stories of tortured passion, raised to such an explosive pitch that only transformation into another kind of life (bird, tree, flower) can neutralise it.

The director Tim Supple, who adapted the piece with Simon Reade, honestly confronts and largely solves the problems intrinsic to such a project. The stage images he creates complement rather than compete with the poetry. Grubby mummies' bands are wound, for example, all over the incestuous pregnant Myrrha, her arms forking forward in consent, to evoke the coffin- like confinement of the tree she becomes. These visual equivalents have a potent simplicity - the border of Narcissus's pool is marked out by a tellingly noose-like rope; his fading into a flower is betokened by the gradual dying of Paule Constable's beautiful light.

Through the necessities of cross-casting with other RSC shows, Supple's ensemble here is not, alas, as physically idiosyncratic or universalisingly multi-ethnic as at the Young Vic. But whipping fleetly through their multiple roles to the punctuating thrill and clash of Adrian Lee's exotic music, the actors communicate well the velocity and violence of these stories and the sardonic eyebrow they raise over even the most horrific savagery. Mark Bonnar is particularly fine and incisive in parts ranging from Tereus, the ruthless rapist in a plot that was clearly the source of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, to the comically hapless (Scots) Pan who makes the big mistake of challenging Apollo to a music contest. Two of the show's funniest ideas are connected with this gritty performer. The arrangement of bare human chest and shaggy-goat legs that is standard in a classical faun is amusingly reversed here. Much to the delighted outrage of the two middle- aged ladies sitting on my right, Supple's fauns have big woolly pullovers, boots and no knickers. A sort of mythic half-Monty.

Blacker humour informs the grotesque "Tereus and Philomela" revenge story through droll touches such as having the unwitting Tereus scoff the stew containing his little boy with the knife he used for mutilating his rape victim.

The risk that tales with similar payoffs will become monotonous ("No, don't tell me, she becomes a chrysanthemum") is skirted with a nifty structure that, as in TS Eliot's The Waste Land, makes the blind seer Tiresias the presiding consciousness in the first half and moves into less supernatural territory in the second. Getting the weight and whirl of Hughes's Ovid, this production is highly recommended.

Paul Taylor

Box office: 01789 295623