Geeks bearing myths: Montague Basement’s Metamorphoses

After going from strength to strength in their first two years, Sydney-based collective Montague Basement have decided to speak of ‘forms changed into new entities.’ In their adaptation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, they have taken the fifteen books of epic Roman poetry and condensed them into seventy minutes of smart deconstructions and reversals; a smorgasbord of transformations and transgressions, a riot of godly shenanigans. “With sincere apologies to Ovid,” the disclaimer reads; you can almost see the “Not really” written in small letters underneath it. And while it works (and when it really does fly, it is marvelous), a lot of the references and parallels – the cleverness and intertextuality – comes from a familiarity with Ovid’s stories, something I don’t think we quite have as much of today as we’d like to think we do.

Ovid’s stories feature gods and mortals getting into mischief in almost every way you can imagine. And then some. There are people turning into animals (and gods to animals) and vice versa; plants and stones becoming human; and all manner of sexual partnering, switching, coupling, rape (again and again; you don’t realise how much rape there is in Greek mythology until it is pointed out), lust, and general dicking around; the gods can’t seem to keep it in their pants for all that long. Add to this “a mishmash of historical references and assumed knowledge, in-jokes and political satire, poignant poetry and crude quips,” as well as an examination of the monster and the monstrous, the hunter and the hunted, and two-thousand (plus) years of violence, sex, and lust, and you start to get an idea of just what a formidable task these young collaborators had taken on.
Devised by Imogen Gardam, Saro Lusty-Cavallari, and Lulu HowesMetamorphoses is performed by Lusty-Cavallari and Howes as they switch in an out of gods, genders, costumes, and stories, sometimes right in front of us, and draw attention to their rambunctious and honest intentions, and are aware of their limitations and perhaps our own in understanding these two-millennia old stories. They might be young, but these theatre-makers are consistently punching above their weight, and are creating intelligent, insightful, and assured pieces of theatre which make you think about the world we live in for days afterwards.
With theatre-maker, actor, and librettist Pierce Wilcox engaged as dramaturg, this Metamorphoses resembles something of a Classical-literature-nerd’s version of The Chaser rather than Monty Python, or perhaps like “a 2 a.m. binge across the darkest corners of Wikipedia.” (And it is dark. And funny. But also dark. Very dark.) Wilcox certainly lends the production are more focused energy, a more political and social commentary aspect, but I wonder if something of Ovid’s protean and fertile imagination is lost in translation; like their Hamlet last year, I wonder if these metamorphoses could have been bolder, more wild, more free and frivolous; a little bit more, well, insane.
However. If you look at what Ovid himself was doing – that is, taking existing stories and selecting the bits he liked while getting rid of the rest; running riot with them, reorganising them into new forms, refocusing their narratives around different characters; leaving off (and picking up again) the narrative thread on a whim – then the structure and end result of this experimentation with these two-thousand-year-old stories is remarkably similar to what Ovid himself was doing. So this Metamorphoses become less about the what of the stories, and more about the how of their retelling – the process of metamorphosing or adapting these stories into a modern context for twenty-first century Sydney.
What happens during the process of adaptation? What happens to the source material, to the end result? How slavish or free should you be in your process? What was the original trying to say; what are you trying to say; where is the common ground; what can you make more potent and relevant? These are all questions these collaborators have asked themselves in the process of creating this production, and although the result is perhaps too specific in its audience, the brio and gutso with which this show has been mounted is more than admirable. Like Sisters Grimm’s La Traviata last year, there is an undercurrent – as there is in Ovid’s original epic poems – of railing against censure and censorship, new empires, the very real threats to cultural diversity and plurality, and the celebration of efficiency and order.
For all the quick-changes, cleverness, and godly shenanigans, I think Aeneid to brush up on my Greek mythology. For all the prior knowledge Ovid (and perhaps Montague Basement) assume of you in their retellings, this Metamorphoses is for people who know and can appreciate their Ovid from their Kafka, yet it is still a hoot, still an entertaining and stimulating seventy minutes of well-made theatre, even if it does (and quite rightly) give you pause for thought at numerous points along the way.
I really want to see that Olympian franchise now.

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