Who would have thought that an ancient Roman classic could be so much fun, fashioned so entertainingly and rendered full of laughter, wit, charm and sheer pleasure for a modern audience?
It took veteran writer and actor Michael Hurst to reveal just how well it can be done.
Last Friday night at the Te Awamutu Woolshed, Hurst had a packed house in stitches as he performed, solo, the premiere of his adaptation of The Golden Ass.
Also known as Metamorphoses, it was originally written by the Roman "novelist", philosopher and rhetorician, Lucius Apuleius, in the second century CE.
Hurst's liberal interpretation, brought up to date for contemporary theatre-goers, was a tour de force.
On a minimalist stage with just a few props – a suitcase and a bunch of roses - and employing a variety of stock accents, Cockney, Scottish, Irish and the like, he traversed an edited version of this ancient tale, convincingly playing all the parts, everything from bandits, cultists, circus entrepreneurs, to prostitutes, witches, priests and pastry cooks.
And, of course, a donkey, which he gets magically turned into halfway through the fable.
With a simple set of false teeth, short tunic, which revealed from time to time, a large distended penis (stuffed stocking) and floppy-eared cap, Hurst played with consummate skill the mad adventurers of this poor put-upon animal.
Chameleon-like, the actor shifted with seamless ease from one character to another, enlivening the dialogue from time to time by slipping into the conversation clever, topical and á la mode allusions into the performance.
The original work is a picaresque narrative pregnant with boisterous, risqué and comedic possibilities, and Hurst's translation and delivery extracted all the meaty potential from the original knock-about farce.
But there is more to this story than just high jinks, sexual innuendo, cruelty and bawdy carrying on. This is revealed at the end of the sometimes sad, ludicrous and appalling chronicle, which has Lucius petition the goddess Isis for deliverance from his plight, at which point he is turned back into his human form.
Hurst manages this metamorphosis in a particularly simple and fitting manner. Lights dimmed, he slowly opens his suitcase and out shines a glowing light that beams directly up at him, whereupon the transformation/conversion magically takes place. Gone are the protruding teeth, floppy cap and dangling penis.
We need to remember that Isis and other mystery cults were popular during this period in the Roman Empire. They were fertility religions that promised their followers preferential treatment in the afterlife, much like the burgeoning Christian cult that emerged at the same time.
Apuleius, with his philosophical platonic interests, would quite naturally have been drawn to such cults, and in fact was, in real life, initiated into the sect of Isis.
The story, taken as a whole, thus becomes an account of spiritual redemption, where the ending marks a climactic epiphany to a tortuous tale that sees humanity revealed, by turns, as ludicrous, tormented, lascivious and nasty.
With judicious support from John Gibson (music and direction), this play wowed the audience, and those who plan to experience this performance are in for a treat.
Apuleius has left us a legacy that stretches down through history, leaving its trace on Shakespeare and others along the way, and Hurst is the first in the world to bring it alive and kicking into the 21st century at a time when the planet and its inhabitants are in need of a little metamorphosis.