Sunday, February 26, 2006

King's Greek Play 2006

Aristophanes, Women Take Power (Ecclesiazusae), King's College London Greek Play, Greenwood Theatre

Performance seen: February 9th 2006

Last year, as I reported, University College London chose to produce Aristophanes' Knights, one of the comic writer's earlier plays, before he hit the peak of his form. This year, King's have chosen to stage Ecclesiazusae (usually translated as 'Women At The Assembly'), one of his last plays from when he had, to be frank, gone off the boil a bit. It is a play that presents certain challenges. Aristophanes was moving at a brisk trot down the road that led from Old to New Comedy, which creates something that is up to a point neither one genre or the other (hence Ecclesiazusae is sometimes labelled Middle Comedy). And the structure rather falls apart in the second half in the way that some earlier Aristophanes (e.g. Lysistrata) threatens to but never quite does.

In any case, I wasn't sure what to expect of Aristophanes in Greek - up to now all the Athenian drama I've seen in the original language has been tragedy. It's certainly the case that my usual instinct with Aristophanes, that one should throw out the actual text, does not apply when presenting in Greek. But would the whole thing be funny if one can't follow what is actually said, and is reliant upon surtitles?

The King's production's solution to the structural problem is, to a degree, to try to make a virtue of it, by emphasizing the episodic nature, though, in contrast to previous King's Greek plays, there is no interval, perhaps in case this would make the play too disjointed. I am unsure whether this tries the audience's patience a little too much.

In other ways, however, an attempt is made to grant unity to the play. The disappearance of the central character Praxagora in the middle is dealt with by finding ways of reminding the audience that she has created the society in which the later incidents play out, either by hanging her portrait, or by (slightly oddly) having her silently arm-wrestling, or by giving her some of the Chorus' lines in the final scene.

The solution to the language problem is to turn to the heritage of the silent movie. Rather than surtitles that summarize 50-70% of the dialogue, a small number of captions are used, as in pre-sound cinema. The surtitles are integrated into the performance as a whole, rather than being an additional distraction from the action (with one joke where the captions are in Greek and the actor speaks English). Something is of course lost in such an approach, but it would probably be lost anyway. What is gained is an increased emphasis on the visual aspects of the production, with the spoken text becoming like the music score, an accompaniment to what we are seeing, rather than its raison d'etre. Inevitably this pushes the production towards greater use of slapstick comedy. This shows particularly in the choreography of the Chorus, from whose ranks are drawn minor roles such as the Women who discuss with Praxagora how to take over the Athenian Assembly. The captions are also used to distinguish between the more traditional sections of the play, that strongly feature the Chorus, where the captions have visual illustrations and are arranged to look like artworks in their own right, and the more 'modern' parts that eliminate the Chorus, where traditional text-only captions are used, often with the sort of frames familiar from silents.

The silent movie motif is repeated in the costuming, where Chaplin and the Keystone Kops are referenced. This then leads to a 1920s theme in the production design, which seems to have found Dadaism via Art Deco (a style similar to that used by UCL in their very successful Lysistrata from 1999). Thus one sometimes has the feeling with the King's production of watching not only a silent movie, but a Surrealist one, where, for instance, the facial hair sported by the women as they disguise themselves as men (disguises also indicated by the simple device of wearing trousers, removed - offstage - when the disguises are dropped) apparently influenced by Salvador Dali. I should not have been surprised had the production chosen to rearrange the order of the later episodes of the play - the episodic nature certainly permits such an approach.

It might be pushing the 1920s theme a bit too far to see in Praxagora's army uniform and the military march of the Chorus past her a reference to Mussolini, though other more recent fascist dictatorships are surely intended. But clearly the motif is at the forefront of the one moment of utter comic genius, the staging of the Hag scene, where a hag and a young girl, and then later two hags (two completely different hags from the first in the text, but sensibly this is reduced to two hags overall), compete for the sexual favours of a young man (according to Praxagora's new order, the old and ugly must be sexually serviced before the young and beautiful). Brilliantly, the Greek text here is set to the music of George Gershwin, and the whole scene just works.

That is probably the most successful idea that production has. Some other ideas are not quite so effective - for instance, in a play where women disguising themselves as men is central to the plot, it seems to me distracting to have some of the unequivocally male roles played by women. The lack of props weakens the scene where a householder is getting his property ready for communal division - the miming of movement of household objects doesn't quite work. And the problem of how to represent Blepyrus' onstage defecation is never quite solved. But it is better to have ideas and for some of them not to work than to have no ideas at all.

As is ever the way with this sort of production, some of the performances are better than others. I shan't single out the less good, but Nicola McCabe's confident approach to Praxagora deserves mention.

Overall, I should say that this is an interesting staging, which tries to deal innovatively with the problems of presenting comedy in Greek, and of this particular play. It will certainly remain in my mind, even if, on the whole, the production delivered mild amusement rather than belly laughs. At the very least all concerned deserve praise for trying something a little different.


Atriades said...

Hi, Tony, thanks for your review. I would have liked to have taken my kids but we are not doing Aristophanes this year and it seems a long way from Taunton in term time for what they would get out of it.

Anonymous said...

Belatedly, I wanted to thank you for taking the time to review our production. Your comments are very much appreciated. FS