Metamorphoses | PACT Theatre

I’ll make a prediction: Dino Dimitriadis will soon be the new Benedict Andrews, Simon Stone or Sam Strong. Cool. Fashionable. Brimming with ideas and energy. In demand. Coveted. Almost invincible (Andrews recently put the almost in front of the invincible). If I were any of those three amigos, I’d be worried about directors like Dino stealing my thunder, sooner rather than later.

This is a measure of how mightily impressed I was by his direction of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses, a co-production between Apocalypse and Bakehouse theatre companies. Hell, I almost didn’t go. By dint of an error on my part, I missed the opening a week ago. And it’s always hard to catch up. For one thing, a belated review doesn’t afford us much impetus to a production as a favourable estimation might bring. Nor as much warning, potentially, to a paying public as one less affirmative. So I always try my damnedest to get in early. And, not unlike a number of colleagues with whom I’ve spoken, I’m loathe to miss anything, mainstream or indie, for fear I’ll forfeit the undiscovered, or underrated, diamond. Granted, this can mean enduring a string of near-woeful productions, at times.

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In the case of PACT Theatre, on the wrong side of the tracks in city-fringe Erskineville, the rewards have been, over a considerable period, relatively thin. So, it was tempting not to go. Even (or especially) a theatre reviewer needs the odd night off, if only to refresh and renew the senses and quell cumulative cynicism.

We enter the quite capacious blacked-out theatre space. There’s a stair of bleachers against the back wall. (My backside is already complaining, in anticipation.) The performers, eleven in all, are in place, strewn around packing crates, which turn out to conceal a few props and a makeshift pool. Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses, of course, is based on the ancient myths of Roman poet, Ovid.

Ovid was something of a prolific poet. His Metamorphoses consisted of 15 books, so we can be glad MZ has condensed them into 75 minutes of involving drama. Compared to The Bible, Ovid really got carried away with his creation story, but it’s in many ways clearer, more instructive and of greater literary merit. I suppose that’s why it’s recognised as nothing less than a masterpiece of Golden Age Latin literature. Before Mel Brooks graced us with The History Of The World, Part One, there was Ovid. Brooks was CE ’81; Ovid, CE 8.

Cut to Zimmerman, CE ’96, premiering her work, Six Myths, the precursor to the big M, which debuted a couple of years later. It relies on a free-verse translation, by David R. Slavitt. But not entirely. There’s another Metamorphoses, a novel, by Lucius Apuleius and Zimmerman borrowed stories of Eros and Psyche from him, not the pretext she admired them immensely. So that, in truth, the link with Ovid becomes more tenuous than we might first surmise, since only the introductory Cosmogony and tale of Phaeton are after Ovid. Of course, the emergence of Zimmerman’s version, whatever the sources, coincided with something of an overdose of Ovid that prevailed throughout the 80s and 90s: there were at least five translations kicking around (including by the likes of Ted Hughes), as well as numerous tomes based on Ovid’s epic. Ovid was, suddenly, a posthumous popstar.

Ovid’s intention, after 12,000 lines was, essentially, to demonstrate that change is the only constant. Wittingly or unwittingly, he endowed us with a comprehensive primer in Greek mythology. It’s all there, really. In no less than fifty stories. You’ve got to have respect for a man that could be way-controversial, in his day, and still make us uncomfortable now. And, like a Dawkins or Hitchens, he doesn’t have much time or tolerance for gods, whom he spends much of his time mocking.

Before we’ve entered, we’ve been able to observe words chalked around the entrance. Breathe. Conquer. Love. Consume. Remember. Chase. Fuck. Confess. Torture. Die. Repeat. Like sand through the hourglass, these, surely, are the days of our lives. The universal story of our lives. Man, those ancients knew a lot more than geeks now. It becomes apparent, as we delve into Ovid, via Zimmerman, they were possessed of an intellectual rigour and vigour we’ve replaced, or think we have, probably with an app. Zimmerman, of course, has some rigour of her own, as well as a knack for finding a near seamless (or at least compatible) marriage between then and now. But, as in Ovid, Zimmerman is epic. It’s all very well for an Melbourne Theatre Company to take it on, as it did a few years ago, and install a massive pool. That would make for a big entrance, for sure. But with his imaginative design and a few flimsy crates, Dimitriadis’ singularly individuated vision wants for nothing.

William Ratcliff’s sympathetically simple lighting design deserves special mention. As do the minor yet magical musical contributions of numerous cast members: vocally; on clarinet and piano. Beyond that, it’s the telling (on the page and on stage), thematic development and performances that illuminate and resonate. It would be hard to isolate a single cast member as head and shoulders above another. It’s an astoudingy level playing-field, which says something both about the young performers and their brilliant young directorial muse, whose choreography (I can only but call it that, for the movement designed for the players was beautiful, surpassing much dance I see) was one of the great, unexpected bonuses. I would’ve been uplifted by the physical evocation of a tree alone.

With trivial exceptions, the actors were as good, for my money, as any onstage the evening before for Bell Shakespeare’s The Duchess Of Malfi at Sydney’s Opera House. And I was almost rapturous about that. Their veritably Olympic gold medal-winning contributions demand they be named. Jarrod Crellin. Rowan Freeman. Sophie Haylen. Richard Hilliar. Daniel Hunter. Jacqui Livingston. Danielle Maas. Alex Nicholas. Katrina Rautenberg. Kate Shearer. Tim Warden.

Just as singling out a particular actor would be like choosing a favourite child, the same may be said of picking a myth. They all have their merits. And those merits are many.

Metamorphoses is richly rewarding. It would be money in the intellectual and experiential banks for even the most avaricious Midas.

We’ve spoken of Ovid’s intention. What of Dino’s? He says: “I hope you neither love nor hate our production; I hope instead you’re stirred, confronted, turned-on, disgusted, confused or, maybe, if all else fails, find yourself laughing out loud at the bizarreness of it all.” For mine, there was a little of all of the above. But, sorry Dino, I did love it.

With these Metamorphoses, I wouldn’t change a thing.

 The details: Metamorphoses plays the PACT Centre for Emerging Artists in Erskineville until July 21. Tickets via Moshtix.


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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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