Thursday, March 03, 2005

UCL Greek Play: Aristophanes' Knights

Performance seen: 02/03/05.

Where King's College London traditionally stages a play in the original Greek every year, the students of University College London make their contribution to the London Festival of Greek Drama by presenting a play in English translation. This year they presented Aristophanes' Knights.

The choice of this play presents some intrinsic problems for any production. Aristophanes later plays, such as Lysistrata or The Birds, are gifts to a producer, full of such comic situations that half a production's job is already done. Knights is different. It's ... well, a bit dull, to be honest. The second earliest surviving play of Aristophanes, and the first he presented under his own name, Knights appears to have been done on the cheap, with the bare minimum of non-speaking extras and costume changes for its three actors. This means that an awful lot of the play is just two men, Paphlagon (meant to represent the Athenian politician Cleon) and Agorakritos, the sausage seller, shouting at each other. It certainly impressed the audience at the time, winning first prize in the dramatic festival of the Lenaia of 424 BC, but for me, at least, Aristophanes' very best work belongs to the following decade. Knights lacks the variety of incident to be found in his other comedies. The UCL production tried to overcome that, but there was still a long section early in the second act where no-one was laughing at all, and the audience’s attention seemed to have drifted. The fault here is at least in part Aristophanes' - he's just not giving the cast the sort of juicy material that we normally expect of him. (But it was also a very cold night through which the audience had struggled, and this may well have dampened their enthusiasm.)

But I can see why it was chosen. There is, despite what I've just said about the weakness of the writing, a lot of potential in Knights, and much that can be made relevant to a modern audience. It is a play about corrupt and scheming politicians pandering to the public's baser instincts, stoking public fears in order curry votes. Some of Aristophanes' lines could not be more appropriate to the week in which Tony Blair and Charles Clarke try to force through repressive anti-terrorism laws in the name of protecting the public. There is therefore much potential for a director prepared to disrespect Aristophanes' text in order to respect the spirit.

The UCL production, directed by Graham Kirby and Reema Selhi, shows its hand early. The production is labelled from the start as an 'adaptation' of Aristophanes, and a glossary included in the programme gives a definition of 'Argos' that covers both the Greek city-state and the catalogue shop. Both of these are good signs. The production follows this up. Set in the modern offices of Athens Inc., Demosthenes becomes an Essex wide boy, Nicias camp, Paphlagon an aggressive brace-wearing City broker, with a touch of David Brent about him. The Sausage-seller is cunningly transformed into a sandwich seller (oddly played by two different people in the two acts, but this does allow a more dramatic rendition of the report of the Assembly that opens the second act, with the second Sandwich Seller acting as narrator and the first speaking the words addressed to the Assembly). The Sandwich Seller gradually metamorphoses into an impersonation of Tony Blair. This cleverly undercuts one view of the play, that, for all that he out-brazens Paphlagon, the Sausage-Seller is at heart someone who will restore the state to its former virtuous state; the Blairite Sandwich Seller is just as corrupt and unscrupulous, and distinguished from Paphlagon merely by being more clever.

Another innovation in the adaptation is to find a few more things for Demosthenes and Nicias to do later in the play. This at least slightly conceals a feature of Aristophanic comedy, the sudden disappearance of supposedly important characters from the plot, as the actors are required to play different roles.

Another Aristophanic convention is the appearance of a naked non-speaking female (or more than one) who is a gift to one (or more) of the principal characters. This is all very well when said naked girl is played by a man in a padded suit. But under the more naturalistic conventions of the modern western theatre, even when sufficiently clothed to maintain public decency, a casual sexism can enter through the usual half-naked woman. Casting a female as Demos allowed a half-naked male to appear as a peace treaty, which avoids this. (I noted that one of the directors had appeared in 2004's UCL Lysistrata as Reconciliation, the equivalent role.)

I appreciated the boldness of the approach to the adaptation, and only wish it could have been bolder still. I'd have liked to have seen more fifth-century references excised and replaced by modern allusions (although in fairness a performance in the London Festival of Greek Drama has the knowledge that its audience will mostly be students or other people with a Classical background, so greater familiarity can be assumed). I did have a slight feeling that the directors were a little lacking in confidence in what they. Perhaps indicative of this is the retention of Alan Sommerstein's Penguin translation for the Choruses. It's fine verse, but the difference between that and the modernized adaptation of the rest of the text acts as a distancing device between the Chorus and the audience, where in much Old Comedy (especially Knights), the one is supposed to identify with the other.

Some of the principal performers were a little on the quiet side. This was especially apparent when they had to compete with a slightly over-loud music track. (But I can’t fault the choice of The Beatles' 'Revolution' as pre-performance music.) This audibility problem did not affect the Chorus, who projected clearly. One member gave a memorable performance which I can only describe as Frank Finlay impersonating Laurence Olivier whilst on acid. In any case, these are not professional actors, and it is unfair to hold them to fully professional standards.

On the whole, I thought this production never quite lived up to the potential of its ideas. However, I can't deny that it showed imagination and ambition, which was a pleasant change after last year's disappointing Lysistrata, which seemed very lacking in those areas (see my review linked to from this page of the Open University's Classical Studies Greek Drama and Poetry Database Project). In theatre it is always better to aim high and miss than to aim low.