Lysistrata by Aristophanes, Roedean Theatre, Roedean School, Brighton, Friday 4 March
Ah yes, Lysistrata, the play with the phalluses, the battle of the sexes and all that; oh so last century, ever so crass and obvious. If something so simple as the withholding of sexual favours could stop wars, wouldn't someone have made that schtick work numerous times between the Fifth Century BC and now? Isn't there something a bit undergraduate about issuing yourself a licence to be confronting about sex while presenting a supposedly serious anti-war message? Isn't that satire sending up itself?
And yet, and yet... this play has been revived, reimagined, reinvented numerous times, both onstage and on film during last hundred years: from Aubrey Beardsley's linocuts to Spike Lee's Chicago gangster hip hop film, Chi-Raq, that there must be another side to what the director of this version says she, when at school, found 'shallow and silly'.
Classic Greek theatre had a religious dimension, the plays presented in festivals, not dissimilar to Easter and Christmas, where familiar stories were rehearsed, where the community came together in a ritual re-living of the myths. As in the Orthodox faith, where icons, images of the saints, are worshipped as if they are actually the saint, when Greek actors donned the masks and impersonated the gods, they became those gods.
This theatrical convention, that the gods could be physically present, gave the playwrights the ability to explore extremes of behaviour, to create a world where anything is possible, where there are no moral limits, where a character can say and do anything.
What's more, the fluid relationship between gods and men, that some gods are men and vice versa, granted a freedom to the stories that we, in a much more rigid relationship with our own moral topography, can only envy.
Far from being just a simple play with a simple message, anti-war and generally in favour of gender equality, Aristophanes uses the battle between the women and men of Athens as a metaphor for the battle between Athens and Sparta which, at the time of the first production of this play, had been going on for some twenty years.
It's a bit like trying to imagine Brighton at war with Southhampton for two decades with the battle ground somewhere near Chichester. All the energy and resources of both cities are poured into the war. The buildings, the schools, the roads, all are going to the dogs. Something really has to be done.
For Aristophanes, and Lysistrata, that something was to force the combatants to the negotiating table. To this end, Lysistrata's strategy is patience and female solidarity. In this light, bringing the women together and impressing upon them the need to act together, to maintain discipline, to wait it out, makes sense as a means of fighting the war by other means. The men, however, can't see beyond more violence.
Lysistrata, as the great military commander she is, holds the female alliance together, and the longer they hold out the more useless the war machine which the men have built, becomes.
And here is the great genius of Greek drama, and this play: the impressive military-industrial complex of Athens finds expression in gigantic, and useless, penises. Only a god could have such a massive member! The bigger the protuberance, the more stunning the weapon, the more it rebounds on he who wields it.
And yes, this is very funny. No more so, in this production, than the scene involving a soldier, who comes in search of his wife, and is led on by her to an agony of tumescence. Colin Kiyani and Lizzie Buckingham's energetic pas de trois, expertly danced, brought the characters, all three, to vivid life.
Actors of Dionysis have been performing Classic Greek drama for almost as long as the Pelopenesian War, and it shows, in a good way. They've been able to update the play to the present with a great deal of confidence, and the translation, some in verse, is fluent and concise.
Andrea Newland was an authoritative and persuasive Lysistrata, emerging ultimately from the chrysalis of her shell suit to appear as a golden Aphrodite, a Greek Cheryl on Athens Has Got Talent.
What really stays with me from this production is the impression that while the company could have taken their interpretation in any direction, they'd made a definite decision to keep an eye on an audience in search of a laugh rather than any heavy thematic lifting. Their ability to seamlessly incorporate the sections that would have been given to the chorus, to be completely at home in what is a difficult form is very impressive.
The comedy worked well, though sometimes the production seemed concerned to move too swiftly on to the next joke, putting frantic energy above a confidence in the material to say something both moving and important. I wish there could have been more moments like the one at the very end, given how entertaining and skilled the cast clearly were.