ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

img_lysistrataBy Aristophanes | Directed and adapted by Michael Hurst
Presented by Auckland Theatre Company | Q Theatre, Auckland | July 30-August 23

For the first 15 minutes of Auckland Theatre Company’s stylish update of Lysistrata, I was slightly worried. Some broad female stereotypes come crashing onto the stage wave after wave, serving us sitcom clichés on a platter. It looked like the show was going to be nothing more than Sex and the City in Athens. But once the famous premise was established, the show found its feet and my initial concerns soon faded into the background.

The reason Auckland Theatre Company’s modern spin on Lysistrata works is how successfully it imports its themes for audiences today. The women of Athens are city girls living in a society run by men. The men are off making war with the Trojans, so headstrong Lysistrata decides it’s time it to take matters into her own hands. She gathers the women of the city to protest against the men. Simply put: no sex until there’s no war. And it’s the sex that sells the show. Or, more accurately, the bargain of sex.

As far as anti-war plays go Lysistrata doesn’t make the most convincing case, resorting to platitudes rather than a nuanced examination of the effects of war. So the purpose of the sex strike is somewhat overshadowed by the sex strike itself. But in the last 2400 years since Aristophanes wrote the play, I don’t think anybody’s come up with a better premise for a sex comedy.

Repackaging classical texts is a popular trend for a good reason. It not only keeps them alive, but it brings a whole new audience to them. And with a classical Greek comedy like Lysistrata, so rooted in its own period, an intelligent adaptation is a necessary ingredient for success. In the hands of Michael Hurst, this is achieved with impressive clarity, displaying not only a deep understanding of the classics but a devilish sense of humour too. This is as much Hurst’s plays as it is Aristophanes’s, bringing largely colloquial language to this lost setting, as well as incorporating worthy translations of poets from the period. Passages from Sappho are a particular delight for a fan like myself.

Not all the jokes work, though—the excess of puns is frequently hit or miss, too often repeating the same ideas. The juxtaposition between casual and poetic dialogue yields more consistent results, milking anachronistic language for all its worth. But it’s the physical gags that really get the audience roaring with laughter, and rightfully so. This physicality is embraced fully by the performers, letting the play run freely and wildly into the territory of full-on sex romp. The bawdier the better.

As a director, Hurst brings his usual sense of immediacy to the stage. His characters never feel static or remain bound as talking heads. They are alive and brimming with energy, reveling in the chaos of the show but also treating the premise with an emotional honesty. No matter how silly things get there’s never any question the show has a heart and a head.

Equally important is Shona McChullagh’s show-stopping choreography. It’s silly, sexy, creative, and just plain fun to watch. It captures the spirit of the show as effectively as the text does, preventing it from becoming a stodgy relic of the past, and injecting it with a ritualistic energy.

And then there’s Amanda Billing as Lysistrata herself. While the character isn’t quite complex enough to allow her the opportunity to give a tour de force performance, Billing gives the role a stoic dignity, playing the straight man to her giggling group of girls, guiding us through even the most expository dialogue with a confident hand. She’s the ultimate team leader here, clearly the star but never stealing the spotlight.

But the rest of the ladies are no slouches either. This is truly an all-star cast working on the top of their game and having a blast. Jennifer Ward-Lealand shows a playful immaturity as Kalonike. Sia Trokenheim is slightly naughtier as an amorous Myrrine. Hannah Tasker-Poland’s movements are eye-catchingly fluid. And Naomi Cohen brings a more demure presence to the proceedings. Highlights though are Lucinda Hare as a terminator-esque Spartan and Darien Takle as a feisty firecracker who brings some unexpected emotional weight to the second half of the show. And I can’t forget last-minute cast member Lisa Greenfield who is literally standing in as an extra pair of legs for Hare.

The fact that many of the female characters aren’t much more than their physical attributes, purely representing objects of sexual desire, may not have been an issue back in Ancient Greece, but sits less well with modern day audiences. This treatment of women just doesn’t have the shades of grey we’re use to seeing on stages nowadays. Thankfully, the males aren’t presented any better, their incompetence encapsulated perfectly by the band of boys.

These men are parodies and caricatures of the broadest kind of chauvinism, from frat boys to military officers to politicians to grumpy old men. But when you’ve got the likes of Andrew Grainger, Cameron Rhodes, Fasitua Amosa, Peter Hayden and Paul Glover, even the most surface-level characters are a lot to savour, delivering performances every equal to their female counterparts.

It still does feel slightly imbalanced, though. When stripped of clothing, the females are definitely presented as eye candy and the men as comedic goons, and the male gaze undermines the female empowerment of the updated text ever so slightly. It’s a minor quibble, but one that is hard to ignore.

Any reservations I had during the first act of the show were blown away in act two with an array of sexual shenanigans that would make Dionysus smile. Both the collective erections of the male cast and the carpet-humping ladies are a sight to behold, and result in the comedic high points of the entire night.

While we can’t know exactly what the music of the ancient Greeks sounded like, John Gibson gives us a damn good approximation of the experience, evoking the ethereal and tribal with equal skill. It’s also just a great excuse to show off the spectacular voices of Billing and Grainger.

Rachael Walker’s catwalk set is furnished with some architecturally appropriate elements and a white fluffy carpet that is as much chic as it is Greek. Not only does it look good, but it gives the performers the perfect space to face each other in this battle of the sexes, women on one side and men on the other.

Troy Garton’s costumes are also equally superb, catering to our present day tastes rather than appropriating classical Greek wear. And Sean Lynch’s lighting, while illuminating the entire stage most of the show, finds wonderful expressionistic moments early on in the second half during the more intimate scenes.

Ancient Greek theatre is too rarely produced in Auckland. And while Aristophanes wouldn’t be my pick to stage, Hurst’s production makes a very compelling case for this particular classic. It’s not the deepest comedy, but it’s a damn good time. After all, this is Aristophanes not Caryl Churchill. So, while it certainly doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, for a piece written so long ago, it understands very well that sex is the great equaliser.

Despite a slow start, Lysistrata ends on with an exuberantly festive climax. Go see it. The classics don’t get much more accessible than this. I promise you won’t leave with anything close to blue balls.