It’s been that time of year again – when hoards of classicists descend upon the Cambridge Arts Theatre to see whatever is being presented as the triennial offering of the Greek Play. Since I wrote about the 2013 play, the Greek Play website has been given a revamp to include a lot of material from the Greek Play archives, all the way back to the performance of the Ajax in 1882. I should also note that the first production to include more than one woman seems to have been the 1950 Oedipus at Colonus, which is really quite late if you think about it, particularly since Bedford College had been putting an all-female Greek play (starting with Iphigenia in Tauris) since 1887. The single outlier was Janet Case, who played Athena in the 1885 Eumenides, but no other women appeared on stage until the 1950 production. But I digress.
This year’s offering followed the format of the 2013 production by bookending a tragedy and a comedy; my thoughts on gender come a little from the choice to stage Antigone and Lysistrata, plays which both revolve around female protagonists. The pairing of tragedy-comedy is meant to try and capture something of the spirit of the Great Dionysia, where the audience would be given the blessed relief of a satyr play after a thematically linked sequence of three tragedies. I have to say that there is something to this, the idea that after being plunged into gloom, the responsible dramatist pushes down hard on the other side of the seesaw. There’s also something very rich in the demands made of actors shifting between modes so quickly, and it allows the comedy to make jokes using the audience’s knowledge of what happened in the tragedy. Helen Eastman, the director of the Greek Play since 2010, has spoken about the improv/workshop approach she takes in the seven weeks before the performances, which allows the plays to develop organically and in dialogue with each other. This relatively short window is particularly important for the comedy, which needs to keep pace with current events; I think the team deserve a small round of applause for managing to keep on top of political developments over those seven weeks without completely loosing the will to live at the number of rewrites they must have needed.
I went to see the Friday matinee, which was rather a treat – last time I went with G and made a weekend trip of it, but going on a Friday afternoon fitted in better to the requirements of infans-care and home life. (How things change.) This meant watching the plays in the slightly odd matinee crowd, namely retirees who were able to make a show at 2.30pm and an awful lot of school groups with accompanying teachers. And me, the academic on sabbatical. The predominance of the under-eighteens meant that the Lysistrata in particular was very well received. Clearly nobody had told most of these students what to expect, and it came as something of a shock to realise that you could, with a bit of effort and some help from the subtitles, actually be quite funny in ancient Greek.
Now, to the plays themselves. Ah, Antigone. I have Issues with Antigone, as people who remember my review of the Christopher Eccleston production at the National Theatre may recall. Most of these issues arise from the fact that when I was teaching in the US, every undergraduate I encountered who had been taught the play in high school seemed to have the most extraordinary ideas about how to interpret it. Most of these have now blessedly faded from memory, but they all seemed to ignore the question of piety and the importance of observing religious laws over human laws that sit at the heart of the play. Polyneices is entitled to a decent burial (as a human right? Discuss) as part of the system that the gods have ordained just; Creon’s choice to enforce sacrilege and ignore divine law in favour of his own authority reflects his failure as a ruler. The play was set in a contemporary war zone – abstracted, of course, although the desert combat gear of soldiers and the smart suits of the chorus gave it a Westerners-in-the-Middle-East feel that I suppose is inevitable in modern productions of this kind at the moment.
Evie Butcher’s Antigone was sharp, angry and focused; Kaiti Soultana as Ismene didn’t provide the foil she needed to bounce off, certainly not quivering in fear at the consequences of joining her sister, but not quite managing the spirited defence of the opposite view that Antigone needs to shine here. A lot of thought had gone into the speeches of Creon, played by Orlando Gibbs, and how to make them match the rhythms of modern political oratory. In fact, the vocal rhythms throughout often managed to echo English patterns of speech, with surprisingly effective results. All of the choruses were set to suitable music composed for the production by Alex Silverman. The stand out moment, though, was the blind prophet Tiresias, who turns up to let Creon know that he has been in the wrong all along and to prophecy the death of Haemon, Creon’s son. Tiresias was played by Jack Hawkins, a choral scholar at St. John’s – and, it turns out, an extremely passable countertenor. Oh, what fun Silverman and Hawkins must have had scoring this bit! The prophetic music, the otherworldly nature of the vocal line, the sense of something higher and beyond the world in which we had been living for the rest of the play… supported by very evocative lighting and the judicious use of smoke machine, this episode was musically and dramatically spellbinding.
All of which made the actual dénouement all the more anticlimactic. After hearing Tiresias’ warnings, Creon frenetically dashed off, and returned with the first of three corpses which had to be found somewhere to lie on stage. The chorus started to look rather in the way, standing around the place awkwardly – which was a surprise, as previously they’d been used very effectively to respond to characters, lending Antigone their physical presence, swaying in rhythm to stirring speech, responding with sycophantic applause to Creon. In this final scene they just looked a bit lost. Although Gibbs’ Creon was very strong for the rest of the play, after Tiresias I found it increasingly difficult to believe and invest in him – possibly a problem of being ten years older than the actor myself now, I’ll readily admit. That said, it did feel as the production buckled a bit under the weight placed on it by the superb build-up in the Tiresias scene and couldn’t sustain the same strength of delivery all the way to the end.
But never mind, I was all ready for Lysistrata after my interval ice cream, and was very pleased that the production took the same general attitude that the Frogs did in 2013 – namely, to follow the Aristophanic spirit rather than the letter; to mock shamelessly the oddities of the original Greek, leading to not one but two striptease/burlesque routines; to work in as much contemporary political satire as possible, leading to a BoJo-esque Foreign Secretary/proboulos as Lysistrata’s main opponent; and a symbolic rather than literal approach to Greek prop practices – so no actual giant phalloi, but Meaningful Light Sabres At Dawn. The choice to make the Spartans American, led by a very orange leader with a ‘Make Sparta Great Again’ baseball cap, and to have ancient Greek spoken in a range of regional accents, worked particularly well. The music was inspired by contemporary pop, and was once again extremely successful, including a sing-along moment which took a large portion of the audience by surprise… Daft, escapist, and having a lot of fun, just as Aristophanes would have wanted. My only slight disappointment was that I didn’t think the subtitles were quite as funny as they were for Frogs, but that might have had something to do with the fact I was expecting them to be funny, while their… innovative approach to translating was unexpected in 2013.
Another fine afternoon of theatre in ancient Greek, then. What this year’s play has given me is some thoughts about the resonances between Antigone and Lysistrata, which had not previously occurred to me. The echoes are more pronounced than they were between Prometheus and Frogs, and for me, the conversation between the two plays is what worked best about this year’s production. Both plays, as I say, have a strong female protagonist; they both explore the impact of war on families; and morally, they both place women in the right and men in the wrong. Lysistrata explicitly noted the cross-over, by using the same stage-set as Antigone, and opening with Lysistrata walking on moodily and looking at flowers and a teddy bear laid in memory of some dead child. The brooding mood was broken, of course, by the entrance of a heavily pregnant and extremely perky Calonice with a buggy, but the overlap was still there. I’m also struck by the parallel lines of the opposing positions – the women side with peace, with harmony, with divine reconciliation, while the men side with war, aggression, dominance. There’s some real speaking truth to power here in both plays – not that I’d call Aristophanes a feminist, since as far as he’s concerned alcoholism comes hand in hand being a justice warrior if women are outside the home, but the underlying structure of the debates in both plays mirror each other in ways I’d not noticed.
The current political situation has led a lot of people to say that satire is dead, because you couldn’t make up what’s happening in this political cycle. That said, this pair of Greek plays offered a new door into both the comedy and the tragedy of the place in which we find ourselves. Seeing and reflecting on the issues these plays raise, both in their words and in their staging, is one way to respond to a world which seems increasingly to be rattling out of control.
With thanks to Katherine McDonald for jogging my memory about Janet Case, and for telling me that 2016 may be the most female ever in terms of its cast and crew!