UCL put on Aristophanes' Lysistrata, for the third time in twelve years. Well, it's a good play, with much to laugh at. I saw it on the first performance, and there was clearly a degree of nervousness in the cast. This was particularly apparent in the actress playing Lysistrata (admittedly, a big, tough role to play). But it clearly was just nerves, and the cast was noticeably more confident after the interval. I'm sure they got better as the run progressed. The Cinesias/Myrrhine scene was well done, always a touchstone of the quality of a production. Setting the whole thing in the Peninsular War was interesting, though the idea wasn't taken much further than as a source for costume design. And whilst I am in principle against retaining the references to Aristophanes' contemporaries that mean nothing to a modern audience, this cast did at least manage to convey the impression that such references meant something to them.
I've been quite lukewarm about recent King's productions, feeling that they often looked under-rehearsed. Last year, I was picked up on this, with a commenter arguing that I was expecting too much of the productions. Well, there's probably some truth, but I do think it's important to say when one thought things could have been better. And they can, as this year's play showed. Because it was clear in the performance I saw that King's have considerably upped their game. Georgia Crick Collins as Helen, Ben Donaldson as Menelaus and Anna Perfitt as Theonoe were particularly good, all managing to act rather than just recite. Donaldson in particular gave the audience a Menelaus who retains his nobility, and is not just an idiot, as can sometimes be the case in this play. And the idea of using the Chorus to enact scenes being recounted, tried out last year in Persians, worked really well this year. The best King's Play I've seen since Rhesus in 2005.
But this isn't the production I want to praise most in this entry. Last night I went to see a production of Lysistrata, given by students of Kidbrooke School. I confess that I hadn't gone expecting much, but it was stunningly good, and I laughed more than I have at an Aristophanes production for a few years; it's certainly the best of the three Lysistratas I've seen in the last twelve months (the other being an Actors of Dionysus production). The whole thing was done as a cross-dressing romp, with most of the female parts played by boys, and the male ones by girls. It's actually quite encouraging that a bunch of teenage boys are willing to dress up in women's clothing and camp it up in front of their mates.
The text used was Laurence Houseman's 1911 version (Houseman was the brother of A.E. Houseman, a gay man when that was very illegal, and a supporter of the Suffragette movement). That might not seem to be the best idea to get the humour of the original out, and indeed, there are few actual laughs in the text, which, unsurprisingly, eliminates a lot of the filth from Aristophanes's text. But the humour and some of the filth are put back by the production, costumes and performances of the cast, as well as a fair bit of political engagement.
What I think makes this production work is an understanding that Lysistrata is not a play about sex, or women's rights, but about war. This is underlined at the beginning, in the introduction of a bloodied figure of Peace (in place of Reconciliation), and in an end which ought to be hackneyed, but is in fact astonishing.
As far as I know, this production has not come out of Classical outreach initiatives, and it is extremely heartening that people still turn unprompted to Greek drama. I would be pleased by this production just for that reason. The bonus on the cake is how good it is. I often find myself feeling that I have become an old cynic, and am far too difficult to impress these days. And then something like this comes along, and just blows me away with what can be achieved.
It's still on this evening and tomorrow. If you have a chance, I urge you to see it.