Theatre Odyssey - Aristophanes' The Frogs - Tue 21 Apr
- Griselda Murray Brown
- 22 April 2009
Aristophanes’ The Frogs
On The Rocks arts festival, St Andrews
The first half of Theatre Odyssey’s take on Aristophanes’ The Frogs, an offering from the new On The Rocks arts festival in St Andrews, felt like the most painful kind of school play. The potentially engaging metatheatricality of the opening scene, in which the god Dionysus and his slave Xanthias discuss how to open the play comically, was unexploited, stifled by over-acting and lost in lines rushed. The opportunity for ironic self-reflexivity, to draw the audience into even the most light-hearted dialogue concerning the nature of humour and art, was lost. An unfortunate start.
This may sound overly harsh (it was an amateur production, after all), but Lucia Szczepanek and Felicity Redfern’s awkward awareness of themselves as (over?)-actors (and of their friends in the front row) was difficult to get away from. Once shattered, it was difficult to piece back together the fragile ‘suspension of disbelief’ so necessary to any theatrical performance. Coleridge is right: such ‘suspension’ is, at first ‘willing’ – a consumer of art does wish to believe in it, get lost in it – but it cannot be sustained indefinitely.
Undeterred, however, by my silent, second-row disapproval, Dionysus and Xanthais set off on their journey to Hades, the Ancient Greek underworld, to find a deceased poet capable of advising them how best to save Athens’ famous drama festivals from ‘the detrimental effects’ of the Pelopponesian war (to quote the programme). The Frogs, interestingly enough, won Aristophanes first prize at one such festival, the Lenaia, in 405 BC. Once again, however, the potential ironies of such topicality, such self-reference, were not explored. A shame, not least because of the comic parallels one might draw between such ancient festivals and the arts festival in which we were all partaking. Indeed, little effort was made to penetrate the ‘third wall’ between actors and audience, a barrier Aristophanes (fond of including, referring to and mocking his playgoers) would not have wished.
It was not all bad. Felicity Redfern played the clever-slave Xanthias with a sarky, Yorkshire twang and evident enjoyment, cracking jokes in keeping with the play’s originally intended bawdiness. Yet the pompous-master-outwitted-by-servant setup soon grew tired, and Lucia Szczepanek’s insistence on emphasising everything so that nothing stood out became irritating.
The interval – separating two favourite motifs of Greek komoidia, the journey and the formal debate, or agon – was followed by an immediately better second half. It opened with an animated exchange between Dionysus’ Xanthias and Pluto’s unnamed slave (Laura Wilson), jaded Yorkshireman and gossip-hungry Glaswegian respectively. As they sat polishing their betters’ blue and brown suede cowboy boots, they introduced the agon, the contest between Euripides and Aeschylus for seat of ‘Best Tragic Poet’ in the hall of Hades.
It was with the entry of these toga-clad poets that the performance really took off. A rather po-faced Euripides (Hannah Reynolds) and flamboyant Aeschylus (Whitney Petty) were each to recite lines of his own poetry and criticise the others’, a setup which quickly descended into petty squabbling. Their earthly literal-mindedness was revealed to comic effect when, for example, Aeschylus snootily interjected that, his poetry having ‘outlived him’, he did not have it at hand here in hell. Such anti-philosophical insistence on the physical was again played upon when, in order to determine the relative ‘weight’ of their verse, each poet was instructed to say line into one side of a large set of scales. Aeschylus, relying on such ‘heavy’ ideas as death (‘corpse on corpse’ etc.), won repeatedly; while Dionysus called his judgement, Euripides attempted a not-so-subtle leaning, then blowing on his side of the scales. Eventually, it was decided that Aeschylus should accompany Dionysus back up to Athens, and Euripides, doomed to remain in hell, was dragged off screaming.
Though it is understandably difficult to reproduce the political satire Aristophanes’ original audiences would have so revelled in, more translatable elements of the ‘Old Comedy’ of Ancient Greece were acknowledged only half-heartedly. The Chorus, for example, seemed uncomfortable as commentators, and their chanted-in-unison verse failed to engage the audience in any real way. A lively Chorus would have provided respite from the strained, over-enunciated performances of the first half. As it was, the Tragic Poets provided the comic relief.