Our summer season 2024 includes a new direction in the series of solo performances from our Artistic Director Richard Spaul. For the first time, Richard presents an evening of tales from ancient classical literature – the narrative poem Metamorphoses by Ovid. 

Richard, your solo performances in the medieval Leper Chapel are now an established part of the Cambridge summer arts landscape. But Latin poetry is a new direction for you. Why have you chosen to perform it?

Metamorphoses is one of the most influential works from the ancient classical period of literature. In particular, the poem had an enormous influence on the work of Shakespeare, who references Ovid’s work throughout his plays. That’s why so many of the stories have become well-known to audiences down through the centuries, and why people discovering those tales today for the first time may find them much more familiar than expected. 

Metamorphoses is famous for its stories of transformation – people changing into animals, birds, rocks, waterfalls and so on, usually under the stress of extreme emotion, violence or fear. The work arose out of the bewildering psychological and societal shifts at the intersection of the Roman and Christian eras, a time of violence, religious cults, pleasure-seeking excess and decadence – reflected in the stories of miraculous, weird, frightening changes. 

The poem also anticipates our own very similar times, when old securities are crumbling, new threats of all kinds are emerging, and radical uncertainties about personal identity are all-consuming. There are stories of gender transition, sexual fetishism, ‘toxic masculinity’, abuse, incest, and supernatural phenomena. Ovid’s poetry addresses issues that are on everybody’s mind today – the work is written as if yesterday rather than millennia ago. 

Richard, you yourself have actually translated Ovid’s work for the show. So what the audience experiences is not only your presentation but your personal interpretation of the original. Can you say more about this.

Translation has been an interest of mine for many years and is my favourite type of creative writing at the moment. 

I’m generalising here, but I find most existing translations terribly safe, terribly boring and terribly timid. I appreciate that there are issues of scholarship and accuracy, but most translations are not done by creative writers but by those who don’t engage creatively with the process of writing. Therefore the translations don’t usually succeed in measuring up at all to the acknowledged greatness of the originals. 

When I work, I often go back to the earliest translations and find huge inspiration there. In the case of Ovid, that’s Arthur Golding’s translation from the late 16th century. I also like John Dryden’s work of a century or so later, and Ted Hughes’s rendition of 1997. These people were all true poets, whether they understood Latin or not. I’ve stolen from all of them.

When I translate a text, I’m trying for something more ambitious than most existing versions. I am willing to add, subtract, change, distort and even ‘damage’ earlier works, in the hope that something will emerge which is not just a worthy boring shadow of some absent original, but a modern, challenging, exciting, disruptive, hard-hitting work in its own right. 

Others will have to say if I succeed or not, but that is my intention.

How have you transformed Ovid’s long work into an enjoyable and accessible solo performance lasting just under 90 minutes?

Metamorphoses is a very long poem and would fuel a dozen or more performances. My performance this coming summer is, I hope, the first phase of a much longer project where I perform other parts of the work based on my translations. 

For this upcoming run, I have chosen only a small sample of the poem, and I’ve settled on three very impactful stories. 

I’ve chosen Ceyx and Alcyone – one of the longest tales, already translated by John Dryden and others. It is a tragic story of a loving couple, a dreadful shipwreck, a ghostly night visit and a miraculous transformation under the pressure of unbearable grief. One of Ovid’s greatest stories.

I’ve also chosen Myrrha, a shocking tale which deals with a young woman’s incestuous desire for her father. It explores frightening and powerful issues which few modern writers would dare address, but which Ovid deals with directly and comprehensively – two thousand years ago. It’s an extraordinary episode.

Pygmalion is my third choice. The story is already famous as the basis for the play of the same name by George Bernard Shaw, later produced as the musical My Fair Lady. The original tale which I tell – about a male misogynist who makes an artificial woman and falls in love with it – is much more troubling than either of these later reworks. Male fantasy, objectification of women; these themes preoccupied those living in ancient times, and continue to preoccupy people today.

Ovid is in urgent need of a revival. That’s why I’m doing it.

in situ: has presented Metamorphoses before, back in 2006, as a company show. But this is a very different retelling.

The original in situ: production of 18 years ago was a very exciting project amongst the trees and meadows of Wandlebury Country Park, with a talented ensemble many of whom I am lucky enough to be still working with.

This Metamorphoses is different. This is just me. The emphasis in my current performance is on a much narrower range of longer stories, explored in more detail and using a more radical and ambitious translation.

Also, the production showcases individual performance skills, especially Voice. I’ve been doing ‘vocal metamorphoses’ for many years, exploring how a single actor’s voice can morph and change, including shifts of vocal gender and sexuality. In that way I have in fact been unknowingly preparing for this current project for many years.

Finally, Richard, what would you say to someone reading this interview and wondering whether to come to our production of Metamorphoses?

Why should people come along at all? in situ: is one of the most exciting and ambitious experimental theatre groups around at the moment – there aren’t many others, unfortunately. So if you want to see exciting, ambitious experimental work, you should come to see us. 

Why should you come to Metamorphoses in particular? Exciting new writing; an intimate setting; a memorably atmospheric space; all presenting themes and issues of the utmost urgency in our frightening, weird and transitional times. 

Leave a Reply