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Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
THIS production has a lot going for it: a decent cast, visceral tale-telling, some wit, and the candlelit Stygian dark of the playhouse.
The retelling of some classic page-turners from Roman poet Ovid are gripping in parts, but the newly created “bespoke” script loses much of the lyricism which makes this poetry rather than pub banter.
In short — and apologies for paraphrasing a quote from a Greek bloke here — this is the opposite of Aristotle’s words, as the whole is less than the sum of its parts.
It’s mainly well paced, the more gruesome tales juxtaposed with some daftness and well rehearsed improvisation. Irfan Shamji, relishing in the fate of King Pentheus, greets a latecomer to the auditorium: “Welcome – come in. I’m about to start a banger here!”
Pentheus had made the classic error of challenging Bacchus, unaware that the vox populi was all for the wine-sodden old goat.
The king is torn apart — “tear limb from limb” could be a ubiquitous stage direction in these playlets.
Steffan Donnelly is perhaps the most skilful of the cast, his slight north Wales accent both crystal-clear in diction and melancholy in delivery.
Fiona Hampton is chilling as Medea, Chanel-suited and icily furious with ungrateful husband Jason.
The ellipsis in this scene leaves a truly dreadful pause in a production where a few more pauses would have served the text more effectively.
Hampton ends her rant: “I ask to see the children…” as she turns on her shiny heel and exits.
There’s a deft conceit, with the story of ghost Achilles having the young girl Polyxena sacrificed. His version is full of faked remorse, and here the fresh writing captures the dynamic well; it’s as if he’s done an online course in psychobabble.
A differing account comes from Hecuba, the victim’s mother, and the resonance here, for a 21st-century audience, is palpable.
Hecuba had lost a son, Polydorus, and finding his body, defiled with wounds, on the shore, she wails: “Justice comes when I confront my son’s murderer!”
Her lamentations turn to growls as she changes into a dog. Indeed, there are plenty more animal noises demanded of this talented cast, with a stag, birds and a wild boar — though even the best technique, when overused, can give us the whiff of an exercise or audition piece.
I wanted to love this first foray back to live theatre, and expectations might owe a lot to slightly zealous teenage study of the Latin classic.
I couldn’t advise a ticket, especially for a small theatre packed to capacity and where more than half the audience wore no masks.
The final two dates, though, will be online, so perhaps a better investment.
Plays until October 30. Live stream: Friday October 29, 7.30pm and Saturday October 30, 2.30pm. Box office: shakespearesglobe.com.
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