Blending Ovid’s epic Roman poem into scenes of 1940s London, and peppering this concoction with slick moments of magical realism, Pants on Fire have created a theatrical masterpiece in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Peter Bramley applies Hitchcock-like detail to every aspect of the set and movement on the stage, whilst leaving Ovid’s own fears about the dissonance between nature and humanity in the shadows of this production. His simple means of creating amusing, visual illusions whilst smoothly transporting characters across the space is ingenious. As is the way these surreal sequences work to substantiate fantastical aspects of the plot, such as Eurydice being bitten fatally by a snake in central London.
Here, Ovid’s temples have been reimagined in the form of Temple tube station and his underworld has morphed into London’s Underground, as Pants on Fire explore the notion that “nothing is what it was and nothing remains as it is”.
The play is successfully immersive and distinctly stylish. Once we’ve walked beneath an over-hanging thicket of roses, and through a room of paintings and interesting artefacts, we’re seated in a spacious, 40s lounge set-up. The following unravelling of costumes – a parade of 40s swim wear, velvet jackets and trim uniforms for pilots, sailors and nurses – furthers this sleek image. However the graceful black-and-white picture house scenes and the innovative costume for Io – who appears simultaneously as a cow and a WWII citizen wearing a gas mask – act as evidence to the fact this is no case of style over substance.
With a cast of talented actor-musicians, music is one of the chief virtues of this production. Despite the occasional moment where a stronger mic level would have benefited the acoustics of the space, Lucy Egger’s adaptations of Ovid’s love stories into tasteful three-part harmonies sung in the style of 40s jazz, are exquisite.
Throughout the performance, there is a record player sat snugly to stage left and a cluster of instruments including a piano, double bass and drum kit to stage right. Too often in productions the attempt to merge live and recorded music results in awkward jarring or one form drowning the other out. However, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses the live and recorded mediums exist harmoniously throughout the play, with humorous touches such as the tap of a live cymbal signalling the end of a recorded tune.
All seven actors gave strong performances, executing ambitious physical sequences with perfection. Chloe Levis and Beth Lockhart gave especially talented performances in their multiple roles, with Levis proving notable for her nimble movement and Lockhart for her vocals.
Pants on Fire have an acute understanding of what is visually impressive. Delighting us with puppetry, magic and cartoon-like Brechtian signs, they use their understanding of the visual arts to create fun theatre that is a spectacle to be seen and enjoyed.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses is playing The Pop-Up Palais at Earl Haig Hall until 30 October. For more information and tickets, see the Earl Haig Hall website.