Metamorphosing myths: some moments fly, others still grounded in Ancient Greece
The myth of Philomela is one of sexually violating and silencing women; a myth that shouldn’t age well, but that metamorphoses frighteningly effortlessly across the ages. Reimagined for the modern day by playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker from Ovid’s ancient poetry epic Metamorphoses as The Love of the Nightingale, and although it doesn’t roam far from its antique origins – albeit more Grecian than Roman to reflect the Athenian milieu of the myth – in form, with a Greek chorus and character epithets, there is a more feminist approach to the myth’s language and moral. Metamorphosis is the foremost thematic thrust of the myth – from sex to society to species – and what performers could be more apt than master’s students transforming into thespians, and what performance space could work as well as a church changing into a thrust-style stage.
The actors from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s International MA course perform in St Paul’s Church, the versatile home of Circomedia, and it’s an inspired choice of venue: small and intimate, the violence feels intensely visceral and the in situ pillars work well with the Grecian setting. Yet, the piece isn’t so well-directed to work in a space designed for aerial skills and acrobatics, only using a suspended hoop in the centre for Philomele’s final metamorphosis into a nightingale. Although, some backstage insight into how the bloodiness and acrobatics of a show like this work on stage illustrates the physical demand it places on both the actors and the crew: in such a unique space, the final flight of the nightingale is balanced by the bodyweight of a stagehand hanging from the truss, not the complex system of weights and pulleys one might expect from a traditional proscenium staging, and so the limits of such stunts are fully appreciated. And, the piece finds places to impress visually elsewhere: the bloodcurdling tearing out of Philomele’s tongue chills right to the bone, and her sister Procne’s unspeakable revenge during the uninhibited celebration of Bacchus spatters blood as it does disbelief.
There is no limit, however, to the veracity, volume, and violence of the language and sound: for a story about silencing, the show has a rich and soulful soundscape. From the rousing rhythm of drums to the eerie recorded echoes to the harrowing wails of the women ensemble onstage while – in homage to the tradition of Greek theatre – the rape of Philomele happens offstage. The moment this takes place, at the close of Act I, is when the play and the performance is the most powerful: Philomele’s maid’s monologue spoken against the screams of her mistress’s rape is heartrending, and Philomele’s desperate pleading with Tereus to understand what she did to deserve his violence is pained and passionate and, ultimately, pointless, and delivered without the declamatory deadness that seeps into some of the other speech. The oppression of Philomele at the hands of her rapist is enhanced in that we never see Tereus unclothed: his power over her, dressed all in black to her bloodied nude slip, is palpable, and all the more threatening when Philomele’s taunts about his nakedness are never fulfilled once she has no tongue to utter the truth.
The real truth in this tale is that it’s all too recognisable today: women are still raped and silenced, but they can also still rise from it, perhaps more like a phoenix than a nightingale, and this is where this show falls rather than flies. Wertenbaker’s script takes all the weight of the retelling, with much of the production still grounded in Ancient Greece, and it feels like a missed opportunity: theatre has the potential to transform – to metamorphose like Philomele herself – and it’s a meaning also found at the heart of the myth, if only we make it matter.