Shoestring is a company based in East Oxford which specialises in small-scale professional touring productions of Ancient Greek texts. Dennis directs the company, which he founded in 1984. Lisa looks after the musical side of the company's work.
The way Aristophanes wrote Birds, Peisthetairos and Euelpides belong to an easy-sleazy world of machismo and slobbish incompetence. They can't stay out of debt. They can't stay out of the law courts. They talk glibly about screwing everything in sight. The only way they seem to screw is up. There is not much that they don't screw up. Confronted with Procne's wonderful first-act aria, Euelpides fantasises about getting into Procne's knickers. When Iris brings Peisthetairos warnings from high Olympus, Peisthetairos's answer is to threaten rape.
Phallocracy has to be the central issue of a 1994 adaptation of The Birds. All the more so when two decades of feminist critiques have not shaken the predominance in classical studies of male agendas. So we knew we were committed to controversial options.
If we replaced Peisthetairos with a woman called Hope and Euelpides with a woman called Amy, what kind of women would they be? They function as straightmen to the multitude of bizarre characters they encounter, but have to be interesting in their own right. Hope and Amy are the play's direct link with the audience. If the audience don't warm to them, the play never gets off the ground. It took us quite a while, and some considerable rewriting, to find the right track.
The original is not tightly plotted even by Aristophanes' standards. We needed a throughline that would underline and strengthen our feminist agenda. The throughline that we chose enabled us to echo in our adaptation every scene of the original except the final wedding celebration, which we were obliged to turn upside down. Once you have taken issue with the main thrust of the sexual ethics of a text you find yourself forced to reshape the ending. In the final scene of the original, Peisthetairos secures the hand in marriage of Basileia, guardian of the lightning bolts of Zeus. But is she the type of girl to lie back and think of Cloudcuckooland?
In a way familiar to students of the Odyssey we found ourselves playing around with the central issues of Homer's Calypso scenes, life and death, love and the promise of immortality, nostalgia for commitments outside of time.
One of our most provocative gambits was to give Amy a degree in engineering. The UK probably has fewer women engineers than the US per head of population. The English are used to women who are adept at managing the men in their lives but not to women who compete with men in professional areas of employment.
We gave Tereus, who drops out of sight in the original, a central continuing role in our version as the arch-plotter of the piece. It seemed such a pity, if our adaptation was going to stick to an anti- machismo throughline, to waste the services of the most notorious rapist and mutilator of women in the ancient world.
Not that we intended our adaptation to be anti-men. The men in the play are all rather sweet in their way. Neither are the women above a few dirty tricks of their own to get what they want --bribery, seduction, the old dumb bimbo routine. In fact, many of them are no more worthy than the men. They play the same games, but better.
If Hope and Amy arrived in Cloudcuckooland in 1994, and Peisthetairos had been there since 415BC, and the Empire of the Birds had gone the way empires generally go, how would the relationships between Basileia and Peisthetairos have changed? We decided Peisthetairos would be even shabbier than when he arrived. He became an aged hippie, besotted with the ballads of Bob Dylan's earlier decades.
Looking for contemporary characters to take the place of the interlopers in Birdland, we decided that they ought to be representatives of the entrepreneurial pressures of the modern English-speaking world, thrusting executives keen to take advantage of free-market economic systems.
We cut the short list down to two, a computer consultant with a software package designed to write legal statutes, replacing Aristophanes' law-giver, and a pop music agent anxious to turn every bizarre situation he chanced on into a new trend. (Apologies to Dave Stewart, whom we both admire.)
Our Music Manager, Vince Conway, became an unpredictable quantity. We thought he would turn up in situations where he was not at all expected, and he did.
To keep the comic flow of the play, we tried to avoid too many long speeches. Much as the Greek audience loved them, the TV generation seems to prefer dialogue. We consequently allowed the builders of the walls to appear, raiding an English soap called Brookside to create a composite Liverpuddlian construction team-- 'Mrs Corncrake and Son--Wall Maintenance'. We made the son a fan of Elvis Presley. He looks atrocious in a white jacket with silver lame trim. Don't we all?
The final scene became in the end a postmodernist exercise in quotation. The line we quoted was 'Stay with me'. A scene between Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner in 'The Bodyguard' first came to mind, but the final result owed more to the hit song from the Shakespeare's Sister's album, 'Hormonally Yours'.
(We are not going to give away our ending, but there was one element in it which rather frustrated spectators who did not know the myth of Procne and Philomela.)
Our tour ends on March 20th. It has generated a lot of controversy, a lot of enthusiasm, some hostility as well. When you take what many people would consider 'liberties' with a text, what else can you expect? But we have always welcomed feedback from our audience. Our shows evolve on the road in obedience to our perceptions of what is working and what is not, and every so often a spectator's comment homes in right on target.
We have cut scenes drastically and sharpened the flow of the narrative. We added three more bird-characters, and limited our use of Aristophanes' more lyrical passages, which younger audiences seemed to reject, to two short interludes. We also changed our publicity to stress that our adaptation is conceived as a sequal to the original.
Not that we could have imagined when we began the project that the play would end its run with six actors playing 34 characters.
Shoestring does not perform for audiences who died 2,400 years ago. Nor do we design our productions for audiences who pride themselves on their privileged access to knowledge of ancient cultures that the lower orders do not have. We really appreciate it when somebody who came without preconceptions and without knowing much about Greek drama leaves the theatre thrilled by what they saw.
Next year: Oedipus at Kolonos.
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(Dennis Douglas taught English literature for twenty years in Australian universities before re-training in order to turn professional. Lisa Mason took a First in Drama and English at Goldsmiths College before going on to a post-graduate practical theatre course at The Arts Educational School. She joined Shoestring in 1992.)