Laird's Frogs

Royal National Theatre Mobile Production presents:
Aristophanes' Frogs
In a new adaptation by Fiona Laird

11-12 March
Lyric Theatre, Belfast

Director: Fiona Laird
Designer: Mark Leese
Lighting: Ian Scott
Music: Fiona Laird
Director of Movement: Jack Murphy
Cast includes Lucy Dixon, Richard Henders, Nicholas Tigg, Flo Wilson

Reviewed by Antony G. Keen
School of Greek, Roman and Semitic Studies
The Queen's University of Belfast

Frogs at first glance would seem one of the harder Aristophanes plays to
put across to a modern audience; after all, the debate between Euripides and Aeschylus which forms the second half of the play goes down well with
schoolchildren and undergraduates who are familiar with those poets, but
might well be harder to get across to an audience to whom these are just
names. In fact, Fiona Laird's production manages to carry this scene off
quite effectively, though it seems to have been cut down somewhat so that it is no longer so large a section of the play.

Unfortunately, there are a number of other sections of this production that
don't work. Paradoxically, many of these fail because Laird has been too
faithful to Aristophanes' text. As Kate Basset noted reviewing this
production in The Times (21.2.1996), the bite of Aristophanes' political
allusions is lost on an audience to whom those individuals are unknown, and the most successful productions of Aristophanes are those that are most free with the text; yet Laird retains many of the original references. There seems, however, little point in keeping a fleeting mention of the poet Morsimus, when even classicists know next-to-nothing about him.

To understand the allusions to Cleophon, Theramenes and Alcibiades one
needs to know much more about the individuals than will most members of a modern audience; simply including a note in the programme that they are
politicians will not do. Likewise, Laird's version of the parabasis, though
containing a few jokes brought about through adapting the text, largely sticks to the original, delivering a message that means little to a 1990s audience. Moreover, these references to Athenians of the fifth century seem very odd when spoken by actors dressed in a mish-mash of contemporary styles.

The play, both in terms of production and performances, takes a while to get going. It starts with Xanthias and Dionysus represented by a wind-up model of a man on foot and a man on a donkey, passing around a large cube that forms the only piece of scenery, from which characters emerge, and the sides of which are opened up to reveal backdrops and other representations of the various locations of the play (this scenery is actually quite effective, though one is always aware of the characters turning it around to get to the relevant side).

The toy is potentially hilarious, until you realise that there's no indication
who is who, and thus the dialogue between the two characters loses some of its point until the toy has disappeared behind the cube and the real Dionysus (Richard Henders) and Xanthias (Nicholas Tigg) have entered. Dionysus is dressed as the last Elvis impersonator in town, with an alcoholic's red nose, and the accoutrements of Heracles worn on top of his yellow costume. He certainly looks ridiculous, but somehow not ridiculous in a funny way. Xanthias dressed in knitted tank-top and reminiscent of Mr Gumby (the character familiar to viewers of Monty Python) is rather more successful. On the whole, though, the entire scene with Heracles just doesn't work as well as it should.

The production starts to pick up with the songs that are used in place of most of the choral odes and also sometimes parts of the main action. Lucy Dixon and Flo Wilson form the core of the Chorus, as Initiates, but for most of the songs they are joined by the other members of the cast. Containing some very carefully-rehearsed harmonies, and usually in a style to reflect the principal singer (so the chorus of initiates is sung in the style of a mediaeval madrigal, Dionysus sings doo-wop) the songs still have a tendency to retain the Aristophanic allusions, but at least the modern idiom is something for the non-specialist to get a grip on, and they certainly went down best with the audience the night I saw it.

The Frog Chorus itself is represented in a manner that is not far removed
from the manner in which Choruses used to be portrayed on stage in the
earlier years of this century, though there are fewer of them. Dixon and
Wilson stand at the back of the stage (though they are actually on-stage,
where on suspects that in the Aristophanic original the Frog Chorus was
offstage) and sing the Frogs' parts, whilst Dionysus replies while rowing
Charon's boat; most of the words are unchanged from Aristophanes.

The performers also seemed to warm up as they went along, particularly
Clive Hayward; he is rather disappointing as Heracles, but gloriously kinky
as Aeacus, dressed up in fishnet stockings and wielding various implements of torture with undisguised relish. In the role of Pluto's slave Hayward is responsible, together with Tigg as Xanthias, for a mime sequence of the two of them, dressed identically, eating their sandwiches; this sequence had nothing to do with Aristophanes, but was one of the funnier moments in the play.

Finally, it all comes together in the poets' contest, with Dionysus as a
particularly dim game-show host; the scales upon which the poets' words are weighed all decked out with flashing lights; and the gulf between Aeschylus (Hayward) and Euripides (Tigg) represented not only by making Aeschylus upper-class and Euripides working-class, but by giving the former a traditional British patriotic song, the latter a rap number. Finally the whole debate degenerates into a brawl until Pluto (a pre-recorded and disembodied Dame Judi Dench) interrupts to sort matters out -- a genuine deus ex machina.

This final main scene, followed by a coda where Xanthias and Dionysus
hark back to the beginning of the play by arguing about the baggage, is the
point at which one starts to get the belly-laughs that ought to be ever-present in a good Aristophanes production. Sadly, this production, though not without its strengths, has too many weaknesses.

Antony G. Keen
The Queen's University of Belfast

(Antony Keen is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Ancient Greek History at the Queen's University of Belfast.)