Translated by Kenneth McLeish
Directed by Noreen Kershaw
28 September - 22 October 1994,
Reviewed by Antony G. Keen,
School of Greek, Roman and Semitic Studies,
Queen's University of Belfast,
5 University Square,
When it comes down to it, it is actually very difficult to go seriously wrong with Aristophanes. Arm yourself with a half-decent translation and a semi- competent cast and only someone whose sense of humour has been surgically removed or gets offended by anything with more sexual content than Sesame Street will fail to enjoy it. Even the old Loeb translations are capable of raising a wry grin every now and again, and not just at their rather arcane language. And if Aristophanes is easy, the Lysistrata is easier still; not only will the sexual politics in the play always appeal, especially in an age where female participation in the state machinery is a reality rather than the absurd fantasy it was to Aristophanes, but it possesses in the encounter between Myrrhine and Kinesias one of the funniest scenes in more than two thousand years of western writing (how could anybody possibly believe this scene unworthy of Aristophanes?). But saying this should not detract from the Contact Theatre's production, for they have actually done the play very well.
It is, like all the best Aristophanes productions, very free with the original text where it needs to be. Kenneth McLeish has adapted his published translation for a cast of only eight, by creating a new character, Eudemon, who gets the majority of the male Chorus' lines, giving most of the female Chorus' lines to Kalonike, and generally combining characters (especially on the male side). This works; the effect is to make the characters much easier to identify with, especially on the male side. Where in Aristophanes' text one gets a procession of largely undifferentiated and undistinguished male characters, and the play is largely dominated by the female characters, in this production one gets a smaller group of males, and the balance of the play is altered so that the males appear more of a match for Lysistrata and her cohorts. Another device McLeish uses is to make all the male characters husbands of all the females. This too works (though it's getting quite far from Aristophanes); a new layer of depth is added to the arguments between the Magistrate (here called His Honour) and Lysistrata when it is not just a political debate, but also a domestic row (and in the case of Lampito, who gets at least her name from the wife of a Spartan King, McLeish may not be that far off Aristophanes' intention).
And of course McLeish replaces Aristophanes' contemporary references with some of his own. This is added to by the portrayal of the characters on stage. By and large, the Athenians are portrayed with northern English accents, sounding like characters out of Coronation Street, a long-running and highly popular Manchester-based television soap opera (the one exception is His Honour, who is played by Jonathan Coyne as a character from EastEnders, an equally-popular London-based soap opera). This is a particularly effective way of mounting this play in Manchester; seeing the stereotypes familiar from television placed into this bawdy context adds another layer of humour, and at the same time draws the audience closer to the characters. For the Spartans, on the other hand, familiarity is not what is required. Aristophanes had them speak in Doric dialect, a lead followed by Alan Sommerstein's translation, who has them speak in Scots. In this production, however, the Spartan military tradition is seized as the way to approach them, and they speak in the tones of sterotypical upper-class British army officers; this makes them seem just as old- fashioned as Aristophanes' dialect. Fine performances were given by Dona Croll as a pragmatic Lysistrata, Su Douglas as a jolly-hockey-sticks Lampito, and Jim Whelan as a perpetually-lost Eudemon.
One must also praise the use of music. When the publicity first appeared, phrases like '[u]sing every form of dance from Ballroom to Boogie' filled one with foreboding, but this too works. Particularly effective are an early speech of Lysistrata's delivered in the form of a Supremes number, and a scene between Kalkonike and Eudemon done as a music hall song.
This is an excellent production of Lysistrata (and quite correctly has all the male characters wearing permanent erections in the second half of the play -- something occasionally omitted on the grounds of taste). And at the very end of the play Noreen Kershaw's production avoids the potential trap of a wholly happy ending. For as the characters dance in celebration of peace, they are showered by red flowers. These flowers are poppies. Lest we forget.
Antony G. Keen
Antony Keen is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Ancient Greek History at the Queen's University of Belfast.