Lysistrata, Aristophanes’ ancient comedy, is a glorious celebration of female power based on an unusual premise – the women of Athens, in protest against the ongoing Peloponnesian War, withhold sexual privileges from their husbands until peace is declared. Infused with gender politics and phallic jokes, in the right hands, Lysistrata can be hilarious. It is a shame that some opportunities are missed in Oriel Classics Society’s version.
There are many aspects of the production that are outstanding, and these should not be understated. The set design is beautiful and intricate, especially for a garden play, consisting of a graffiti board infusing mosaic, glitter, and a drawing that is both vaginal and phallic in a way that I have never before seen. It is brought to life by the character of Oriel’s third quad, and the atmosphere is created by some beautiful original music, for which Henry Deacy, Callista McLaughlin and Lauren Hill should be praised. The use of a chorus, singing in the original Ancient Greek, is also an inspired decision – the beauty of the language, and the tone set by the choral interludes, greatly complements the story, and goes some way to transport us back to the original style of the comedy (originally performed in 411BC).
However, the performance of the play itself was disappointing. Comedy, according to performance psychologists, lies in the gap between expectation and reality. In Aristophanes’ script, this is manifest in the continual use of innuendo, with abundant phallic imagery. The comedy is that the sexual references are explicit, but still function as double entendres – the conversation can still be between two statesmen, completely sincere in their diplomatic discussion, but continually alluding to sexual frustration. Here, almost every innuendo is accompanied by the thrusting of a giant colourful strap-on, which every male character sports. The props themselves are at first amusing, but soon grow old when used as the accent for nearly every phallic reference. There are only so many times that thrusting a dildo can be funny. It is a shame that this detracts from the comedy of the script, but some excellent comic performances do redeem it in places. Jonny Adams is especially good as Myrrhine, nailing the coy and ostensible naievete in the scene where she taunts her sexually frustrated husband with the promise of intercourse. Similarly, Phoebe Mallinson is convincingly earnest as Lysistrata, the title character, who rallies the other women to victory. Indeed, the cast are clearly incredibly talented, but some over-directing vitiates a few performances, which are too exaggerated in unnecessary places. Comedy is more often in understatement than in superlation.
Although the atmosphere was aesthetically very inviting, we had to wait 15 minutes before the play began, and even then, thanks to some abridgement, it was over within half an hour. Admittedly, it is a very short play, but given that, one wonders why any abridgement at all was necessary.The opening scene, in which Lysistrata convinces the other women to abjure sexual relations, is completely removed, beginning instead with their vow of chastity, for a reason that is completely unclear to me. If it is to try and give the play a more feminist stance, there are other ways this can have been achieved without cutting nearly 20% of it.
I went in with very high hopes for Lysistrata, a hilarious play, looking to be in experienced hands. Some aspects of the production were excellent – especially the set design and the original music, which was beautifully played. Indeed, some elements of the play, especially the more explicitly classical ones, were really something special – the chorus of singers performing in Ancient Greek was outstanding. In substance, though, the play was disappointing. The comedy of the script was ruined by exaggeration, and it should not have been the case that one of the loudest laughs came from ABBA being played at the end.