Metamorphoses at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – review

New writing takes on Ovid at Shakespeare’s Globe

Steffan Donnelly and Charlie Josephine
Steffan Donnelly and Charlie Josephine
© Helen Murray

This new interpretation of Ovid's ancient tales is scripted by the Globe's first writers-in-residence since its closure in the 1640s. No pressure then, considering one of those previous writers was a certain William Shakespeare. More strikingly, as we're told in the introduction, it's also the first production in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse since March 2020, and it provides a very warm welcome back.

Sami Ibrahim, Laura Lomas and Sabrina Mahfouz have written fresh takes on mythical figures such as Orpheus, Achilles and Arachne, all delivered with a "gather round the fire" vibe – in more ways than one, considering the candles. With various props simply arranged along the back wall, it's as much a celebration of the importance of gathering to tell stories, as of the stories themselves.

There is also some neat theatrical invention. The story of Procne and Philomela, who are brutalised by the same man before wreaking their vengeance, is told by Steffan Donnelly and Charlie Josephine sitting at a table eating peaches. When Philomela's tongue is cut out by her sister's abusive husband following his rape of her, the chewed fruit drops to the floor. It's simple but devastating.

Other highlights include Fiona Hampton's Hecuba calmly laying the body parts of her son's murderer on a slab, before transfiguring into a dog. And Irfan Shamji is an enjoyably preening Achilles ("I did a lot of dodgy sex stuff") and Phoebus, the sun god undone by his son.

Many other stories are packed into under 90 minutes, some familiar and others more obscure. There is Myrrha, who falls in love with her own father and ends up turning into a tree and giving birth to Adonis. There's Orpheus, whose song is so beautiful it can turn stones to marshmallows. And there's Midas, whose story is told through the form of a very funny, and very bitter, song from Apollo, whose music he derided.

All told it's both a subversive and educational whistlestop tour of these canonical tales, all of them underpinned by themes of hubris and transfiguration. There are valuable lessons we could all learn from the characters' very human flaws; I'm looking at you, the guards who stayed silent while Procne was being abused.

Holly Race Roughan and Sean Holmes' co-production, which is being live streamed later in the month, is light, energetic and full of audience participation. One of the stand out moments for me was singing along to "American Pie" (don't ask), reflecting on the fact that until recently such an activity was banned.

This is storytelling in its purest form, delivered by a cast at the top of theirs.