Gender fluidity runs deep in Greek mythology.
Its stories are littered with transformations.
Iphis, born female but brought up as a boy, falls in love with Iolanthe and is eventually transformed into a man.
Teiresias, the blind seer, spends seven years as a woman and even gives birth to children. The nymph Kainis chooses to become male to avoid the attentions of a sexually predatory Poseidon.
Determined to seduce the nymph Callisto, Zeus disguises himself as the goddess Artemis. On discovering Callisto is pregnant, the outraged Hera, wife of Zeus, turns her into a bear.
Theatre director Dino Dimitriadis knows these stories inside out. He is about to open a new production of Metamorphoses at the Old Fitzroy Theatre. Written by American playwright Mary Zimmerman, the play is an adaptation of Greek myths as set down by the Roman poet Ovid.
For Dimitriadis, these tales are more than heritage. They are personal.
“I am a gay Greek man and I have grown up with these stories my whole life,” Dimitriadis says. “I know the mythology and doing this play is a kind of reclaiming of these very ancient stories and look at what they mean today. I want to see what survives and what transcends in a queer reading of this play.
Fluidity is central to Metamorphoses.
First performed on a Chicago university campus in 1996 and later on Broadway, it became famous as “the play with the pool”. The published text mandates the stage “is entirely occupied by a square or rectangular pool of water … all scenes take place in and around the pool.”
In its first scene, a woman addresses the audience: “Bodies, I have in mind, and how they can change to assume new shapes …”
Metamorphoses wasn’t imagined as an explicitly queer play when it was created, Dimitriadis says, but he sees it as an inherently queer text.
“For example, queer theatre often embraces fragmented storytelling instead of the linear narrative. Here you have 10 fragments of myths and each one is a kind of separate universe but the audience can also create meaning by pulling together threads from each one and weaving something unique. You can’t do that in conventional narrative-driven play.”
Dimitriadis’ production of Metamorphoses is his second. His Apocalypse Theatre Company produced it in the PACT space in Erskineville in 2012.
“I didn’t have plans to be doing this play again,” he says. “But there was an energy that I was feeling round identity and queerness mid-way through last year and with this being the 40th anniversary for Mardi Gras, the play started speaking to me again.”
The wider culture has changed markedly since 2012, too, Dimitriadis says. A rethink was in order. “There’s a new energy in people claiming their various identities and taking ownership of their stories. I think it’s interesting to look at this play through a very contemporary queer lens. I think we have a different understanding of what gender identity is.”
This revival is “radically different” to the PACT show, says Dimitriadis. “We really honoured [Zimmerman’s] ideas in that first version and it was in a huge space. This time I wanted to make a super-intimate version, something really visceral. So it was the Old Fitzroy or nowhere, as far as I was concerned.”
Audiences will be very much poolside, overlooking a shallow tank holding close to 1000l of water. “The pool is pretty central to the design and we use it in all kinds of ways,” Dimitriadis says. “It’s a constant presence, like an 11th character in the play.”
Many of the 10-strong ensemble will be naked during the show.
“We get rid of the interest in nudity quite early on,” says performer Jonny Hawkins. “It’s dealt with quite casually and not sexualised, or if it is sexual, it’s in ways that aren’t conventionally ‘sexy’.”
At one point, Hawkins will be naked for an entire scene. “I have a prolonged scene in the water. Not speaking… just me as an image in the water. And yes, I am naked. I think it’s worse for the audience than it is for me,” he laughs.
Dimitriadis has extended the notion of fluidity to encompass all aspects of the play. “I’ve switched the roles between male and female actors but kept all the pronouns as written,” he explains. “One of the key elements in my idea of queer theatre is that identity is not fixed, it’s ever changing.”
Most of the cast identify as queer, and most of the behind-the-scenes creatives. “I was looking for performers we don’t often see in a space like this and each of them bring something of a queer lens in and of themselves,” Dimitriadis says.
“There are many things we’ve drawn on to weave that queer lens in: gender fucking, drag, exaggeration, surrealism, parody … a lot of those devices aide a queer theatre to subvert the idea of a fixed identity.
“Characters come and go very quickly in these stories, so I wanted to create the idea that we are just 10 bodies telling these stories. There isn’t one character or actor that the audience travels with or invests in.”
Diana Popovska plays Orpheus, the poet who descended into the underworld to reclaim his bride Eurydice.
“Orpheus is referred to as ‘he’ and ‘him’ but I’m not playing it as a male, I’m playing it as myself.
“I identify as queer and what has really stood out for me is how Metamorphoses and its retelling of stories helps us understand our place in the world,” Popovska adds. “I think it’s something the queer community does; we band together and tell stories.
“Because we have a different narrative in the world, we are seen as not normal and not accepted. Coming together and telling stories is a way to say we are human, we are flesh and blood, and we love. We have the same array of emotions anyone else does.
“This is who we are and we deserve a spot on stage,” Popovska adds. “It’s our turn.”
For Hawkins, Metamorphoses is a rare opportunity to explore a non-heteronormative text. “My last acting gig in theatre was in [Alan Ayckbourn’s] Relatively Speaking over at the Ensemble. You couldn’t get more different. I played a straitlaced cis white guy confused about love. On TV, I get to play gay characters but they’re never the ones moving the scene forward or changing what’s going on.
“To do a queer reading is to take what is heteronormative and turn it on its head. It’s trying to make normative culture irrelevant. In this production, it’s not important who is male and who is female or who is into male or into female. It’s about how each individual body experiences the world without your definitions mattering to me or my definitions mattering to you. I find that really exciting.”
Popovksa says audiences don’t have to be queer to appreciate a queer reading of the play.
“I think it’s important for people to see something like this because it’s about humanity, it’s about love, it’s about hope, it’s about tragedy and done in a way where you see queer people have the same shit experiences as everyone else. It’s beautiful and hopeful and full of queer energy.”
Dimitridis says there is empathy and hope underlying the production even when some of the stories are deeply tragic. “For me a queer theatre is a theatre of empathy and optimism and hope.”