Just a Little Murder

David Stuttard

Live at Zedel

Crazy Coqs

On 12 September 2017

Review by Howard Loxton

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This isn’t a murder mystery, though there is a killing (quite a few actually), and it’s not a play but an unusual entertainment that is not what you would expect in a cabaret venue.

These days, Crazy Coqs' eclectic programme ranges from French chanson to stand-up, jazz to chamber music, interviews with theatre luminaries and other celebrities, drag artistes and even writers reading their latest work, but a programme of ancient Greek poetry may still seem surprising in this art deco setting.

But, as its presenters point out, this is work that is still significantly relevant and, in David Stuttard’s lively, modern translation, very funny and sometimes very moving, especially when its readers are as accomplished as Fenella Fielding and Stephen Greif. Readers in fact gives the wrong idea for, although they have scripts in front of them, they give are fully-fledged performances of some splendid material.

A series of sardonic comments about women are delivered with a light touch to kick things off with a big burst of humour but, though the emphasis is on entertainment, what stays most in the mind is the more serious side of this material. Things haven’t changed much, despite the millennia passing. Men still make the same sort of jokes. ”If only I could find a girl who was both beautiful and silent,” complains one poet. Another thinks he’s being very clever saying “a woman gives you pleasure only twice: the first time on your wedding night; the second at her funeral.”

It is not only a male view that is represented. There are poems from Praxila and Sappho as well as Simonides and Pindar. I don’t know whether it was a boy or a girl that made one writer “melt like consecrated beeswax” but gosh, they must have been lovely.

Miss Fielding doesn’t rely on the voluptuous vocal cadences that one remembers as her comedy trademark but offers a clear and highly intelligent delivery, always retains audience contact although reading and a performance full of feeling. It needs to be too, for the Trojan War and its aftermath are part of the programme.

She is a very moving as Euripides’ Queen Hecuba, mourning the grandson cast from a cliff by the Greeks in The Trojan Women and makes a strong, unrepentant Klytemnestra addressing the Argives after killing her husband in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon. They will join very different memories of Valmouth and her youthful revue days.

Stephen Greif handles the humour with wit but he too has some very serious material. There is one surprising passage; it comes I think from a speech to his troops by the Spartan general Teleutias, as reported by Xenophon, exhorting his young soldiers not to abandon their elders if they are hurt on the front line and there is a poem (by Simonides?) describing the awful conditions under which men are fighting that could have been written 24 centuries later by a poet on the Western Front.

Just a Little Murder, as a title, suggested a light-hearted evening and, even though that referred to the bloodbath at Mycenae, that is what Stuttard, Greif and Fielding provide but it is interwoven with something much deeper.