Tales from Ovid, RSC at The Young Vic
Anyone who has sat in a Latin exam with one of Ovid's Metamorphoses in front of him will be astonished at this production. What the RSC (and Ted Hughes' vivid translation) have done is to turn Ovid from a half-remembered writer to the fount of Western literature that he really is.
Watching this production, you're reminded just how many times Shakespeare uses Ovid, either as a source for his plays or within the text itself. For example, the Teleus and Philomela story is an obvious reference point for Titus Andronicus. Once upon a time, schoolchildren would have known these stories, and the RSC is helping us rediscover them now.
The format is simple: ten of Ovid's stories are presented here. Tim Supple's direction is so slick that one episode moves seamlessly into another. Occasionally, he makes use of linking characters such as the blind prophet Tiresias, sometimes he just takes us straight into another story.
There are no elaborate props needed. In this production, two whips can serve as copulating snakes, tapes make Arachne's spider web, Midas's touch turns grass into gold tinsel and so on. What really counts is that the story-telling and the ensemble cast (each of whom play several parts) work hard to ensure that the audience is kept fully engaged.
If there's a criticism, it's that there are some occasions where the production seems a bit too didactic, in the 'look at this, this is classical literature and it's good for you' sense. Perhaps, because the source material is a book of poems, there's a slight lack of dramatic impact and sometimes it seemed like one was watching a school production - although there weren't many school productions I remember that featured so many naked men.
But that's a small quibble. The piece is, on the whole, engaging, and it wouldn't be fair to single out any of the cast as everyone works extremely hard. When actors have to play anything from gods to wild animals, from nymphs to stalks of reeds, as here, they are certainly kept on their toes. The composer, Adrian Lee, is deserving of a special mention, however. He has produced an evocative score, drawn from a wide variety of musical sources (the Balkans, Middle East and Africa figure strongly).
Tales from Ovid is a superb evening's entertainment. These stories, 2000 years old, are presented as if they were new. And on the night I attended, every member of the audience seemed to be thoroughly engaged - you can't get much higher praise than that.