Reviews, News and Commentary

Wherefore Art Thou Isis ?

Review by Malcolm Calder

The Golden Ass by Lucius Apuleius

Adapted & Written by Michael Hurst
Additional Text by Fiona Samuel 
Music & Original Direction by John Gibson
Set Design by John Verryt

Q Theatre Loft, Until 15 April

Then Artworks Theatre, Waiheke Island, 28-29 April

Then Dolphin Theatre, Onehunga, 5-6 May

Reviewed by Malcolm Calder

I had no idea that Michael Hurst was alive nearly 2,000 years ago nor that he was a close mate of Roman philosopher, writer and orator Lucius Apuleius.  And I had no idea that Lucius Apuleius still lives on nearly 2,000 years later nor that he is a close mate of Kiwi writer and actor Michael Hurst. 

This a simple story that totally transported me for, in this compelling production, the two become one.

Frontispiece from The Works of Apuleius: a portrait of Apuleius flanked by Pamphile changing into an owl and the Golden Ass.

Now nearing the end of a national tour, much of it under the auspices of Arts on Tour, The Golden Ass is something that gives theatre a good name.  After being blown away by the technical wizardry of Sydney Theatre Company’s Dorian Gray,this production brought me back to ground with a resounding thud and reminded me that good theatre can actually be quite simple.   

Sure, having an outstanding actor like Michael Hurst makes a big difference but, to reprise an oft-told refrain, telling a simple story and telling it well is what makes good theatre.     When that actor merges and ‘becomes’ the original creator in the eyes of the audience, it is truly compelling.  Yes, The Golden Ass is funny (hilariously so at times), yes it is contemporised (also hilariously at times) and yes, it is something you should not miss.

Also known as Metamorphoses, this satire on life, society and beliefs was originally written by Lucius Apuleius, about 150CE and is acknowledged as the only remaining Latin novel of its time.  Although widely-travelled, schooled in Greek philosophy and staunchly Roman, Apuleius was actually born in what is now northern Africa and penned the work near what is today known as Tripoli.

His tale recounts the ludicrous adventures of one highly-libidinous Lucius, who experiments with magic before eventually and accidentally being turned into an ass.  In this guise, he hears and sees many unusual things, until escaping from his predicament in a rather unexpected way.   The work was probably never autobiographical, but apparently included many references that weren’t too far removed from Apuleius’ own interests and experiences.  And the man knew what was a ripping good yarn nonetheless.

I also suspect Apuleius’ original took several days to relate whereas Hurst’s 21st century interpretation scales it down to a more manageable 80 minutes that simply flew by for me.   Most importantly, it brings things neatly up to date without losing any of Apuleius’ salacious gusto.  Nor is it without serious commentary and observation, tossing out many contemporary references along the way – sometimes almost as ad libs and asides.

Perhaps most aptly, Hurst’s journey with this work echoes the ways of the old travelling theatrical showman – performing in many and varied settings as he moves around the countryside and always ensuring that he hits the spot with his audience.  I regret being unable to introduce him to my own late grandfather – a travelling and bawdy poet, who worked the pubs and halls of Taranaki in a similar fashion during the Great Depression.

Verdict?  This one is a memorable goody.

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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