Tales From Ovid
Young Vic Theatre Summer 2000
In the 1950s American director Paul Sills developed the narrative/theatrical style called Story Theatre, in which actors took turns stepping out of character to narrate, and much of the action was stylised or mimed.
In the 1960s several companies adapted dance, mime and movement vocabularies to enhance the dramatic moment and evoke a mythic effect.
And now everything old is new again as director Tim Supple of the Royal Shakespeare Company uses these partially-forgotten styles to dramatise Ted Hughes's translations from Ovid.
Many of the familiar tales are here - Narcissus, Arachne, Midas, Philomela and others, generally involving mortals angering or inspiring the pity of the gods and ending up as animals, birds or plants.
Hughes's translation is strong and uncluttered, but still poetic, and frequently witty, and enhanced by an original music score played live on a variety of unfamiliar instruments.
Cast members take on different roles in each tale, and share in the choric or antiphonal narration, often stepping briefly out of character to refer to themselves in the third person.
Sets and props are evoked imaginatively - a circle of rope on the floor becomes the pool in which Narcissus sees his reflection, while long loops of cloth cats-cradle into Arachne's web, and some choreographed sleight-of-hand transforms everything Midas touches to gold.
The effect is frequently beautiful and imaginative, at least for awhile, until the limits of the form become apparent, and the same few gimmicks start to repeat themselves.
It doesn't help that the second act contains some of the heavier and less imaginatively staged tales, so that pacing and theatrical invention flag together.
The episodic structure and constant role changing gives few in the cast an opportunity to sustain a characterization. But Sam Dastor as Tiresias and Fergus O'Donnell as Bacchus reappear in several tales with entertaining variations, while Sirine Saba brings some raw sexuality to Myrrha and Salmacis in separate appearances.
It would be easy to dismiss this as the best new experimental theatre production of 1958. Still, for those for whom this is not old hat, it will be new, and for at least half its length an introduction to the charm and beauty of Story Theatre.
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Review of Tales From Ovid - RSC at Young Vic Theatre 2000