Theatre Lab Company
Riverside Studios

Denise Moreno as Pitho, Nuria Benet as Kalonike. Carolin Ott as Lampito, Annabelle Brown as Lysistrata, Laura Morgan as Nefella, Tania Azevedo as Myrrhine and,Dimitra Kreps as Strathyllia Credit: Yiannis Katsaris
Annabelle Brown as Lysistrata Credit: Yiannis Katsaris

Aristophanes' satire, first produced in 411 BC, presents the women of Athens and the other Greek city states banding together to force their men into making peace. These days it has often been appropriated to present a pacifist and feminist message but that’s not necessarily what the dramatist intended; there are too many loopholes for its strategy to have succeeded. The idea of women forcing men to give up their bellicosity by denying them connubial contact is more about laughs than politics.

The idea of a “sex-strike” on the part of women leaving the men rampantly randy, sporting engorged members, has equally enormous comic potential. Such bawdy humour is just as funny today, if not more so since it is not now as commonplace in our theatres as it was in fifth century BC comedies, but can we update it? That is what Theatre Lab and their director Anastasia Revi have attempted to do in this new production.

Starting off with a translation by Jeffrey Henderson, this adaptation is a very free one. Tney have not only put it into modern dress with some topical references—which would only be to match the original, but to make it contemporary. There are songs, not necessarily the original chorus items, sometimes with tunes that sound very familiar and lyrics written or adapted by the musicians Daemonia Nymphe (who are Spyros Giasafakis and Evi Stergiou).

This is no longer a play set against the Peloponnesian Wars and protesting about how long they’ve gone on. These women are not just the women of the Greek city states but the women of Europe, their plan to make men abandon a profit-driven economy and cure the EEC’s and the world’s problems. It’s a tall order!

Annabelle Brown’s spirited Lysistrata is in charge from the start, busking away on a saxophone in a street marked where vendors ply the audience with their wares. This neutral-born leader isn’t bossy; she’s deceptively gentle with a natural charisma that puts people on her side.

A few words in Greek to start with suggest that we are probably in Athens and the women answer to Greek names but it is not clear whether the women whom she has called to a meeting are drawn from immigrant stallholders or delegates sent from abroad.

As they arrive they represent the countries of Europe, each an affectionate caricature of their nationality: Nuria Benet’s exuberant Spanish Kalonike, Tania Azevedo’s Portuguese, Myrrhine, Laura Morgan’s tit-tasselled Nefella (I though a Lancashire lass but the programme says Irish) , Carolin Ott’s so-practical German Lampito, Denise Moreno’s slinky Baudelaire-reading French Pith and Dimitra Kreps's animated Italian.

Only a few exchanges in and the text is already into double meanings. “Is it a big one and very hard?” asks one of the women lasciviously and from there on the bawdry goes on growing. The men are not as clearly characterised as the women but vaguely match them. Matt Gardner is a British policeman, Nikos Poursanidis a top banker, Konstantinos Kavakiotis a Russian politician, Marco Nanetti an Italian cabbie and Joe robert Buckingham a bewigged British judge but they work many as a male ensemble.

With the Acropolis Bank taken over by the women and finance brought to a standstill, the men still won’t give way. Failing in an assault on the bank and ever more frustrated, the men are near to bursting. With long rubber balloons serving as phalluses that can prove explosive and though each incident may be random, a series of ready replacements make a good running gag.

With designer Maria Vazeou’s colourful, bunting-decked street market setting the mood, this is a high-spirited romp but the refocusing of the women’s campaign raises too many obvious questions of its practicality and the men are portrayed as such wimps that you can’t take them seriously.

In a world where Thatcher, Meir, Ghandi and today especially Merkel hold the reins, a women-driven sex-war loses even more credence. But, if you ignore that, don’t seek political bite to match the subject but just lie back and enjoy it if that isn’t too out of context, this production delivers in its sexual humour, not least in its picture of randy women.

If for a moment you can buy the Utopian dream that Lysistrata’s plan relies and give yourself up to its scabrous humour this is a hoot.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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