This box-office winner of 411 B.C.E. a hit in 2020: Lysistrata review

Lysistrata delights sold-out and socially distanced audience

Go back, waaay back, way to the other side of the zero, back to 411 years before the zero.  Athens is the superpower, the sparkling gem of the Mediterranean, the glorious democratic founder of western civilization.  Except that, in 411BC, things were not at their best. Athens had just been horrendously defeated by their arch-nemesis Sparta and the Syracusans of Sicily.  Really horrendously. It’s entire army and navy was snuffed out of existence in a nightmare of massacre, starvation, humiliation and slavery, removing a huge proportion of the males of Athens from the face of the earth.  It was so unthinkable that the unfortunate soul who was the first to bring the news to Athens was tortured on the rack for so obviously dealing in fake news. It was a turning-point in the long-running war with Sparta, leading not too long after to the end of democracy and the final invasion of high-cultured Athens by the uncouthly spartan Spartans. And just to ensure the extermination of any last remaining vestige of Athenian happiness, the city had been visited three times by disastrous plagues.

Obviously when things are this bad the thing to do is go to the theatre.  In 411 B.C.E. the box-office winner by a wide margin was Lysistrata, penned by Aristophanes, a Greek Benny Hill specializing in lavatory humour and low-browed and seriously below-the-belt sexual innuendo.  His play is probably the best example of how low Athens had sunk, having the storyline of women taking over political power.  Yes, I know, but remember that Athenians were not in a good mental space then.  

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Woman in a winged armoured helmet and Grecian costume sitting in a chair, typing on a mabook
Kat Stephens takes a break from trying to end the Peloponnesian War. - Jackie Minns

So, the women of Athens, fed up with the forever war, occupy the Acropolis, capturing the state treasury and ruining the tourist industry.  In the absence of real men, their only opposition is a chorus of withered and wrinkled old curmudgeons, played brilliantly convincingly by Peter Frinton, Doug Elliott, Martin Clarke and Frazer Elliott.  Davin Killy well played The Magistrate, the only spellable character in the cast.  

But it was the women who owned the story and the show.  Kudos (meaning glory or fame, from the Greek word kudos meaning glory or fame) goes to Amanda Szabo’s heroic Lysistrata and her fellow-plotters Jackie Minns, Annabelle Coon and Kat Stephens.  The chorus of withered and wrinkled crones was played brilliantly convincingly by Aubin van Berckel, Heather Hodson, Silvaine Zimmermann and the silver-tongued Maggie Brockington.  The women’s real mistress-stroke is to combine forces with the women of Sparta and stage a sex-strike to force their men to sue for peace  A nicely-played pas-de-frustration by Annabelle Coon and Frazer Elliott showed how they pulled off this feat.    

And kudos to director Bronwyn Churcher.  She was the one who came up with the idea of thrusting an ancient Greek play upon an unsuspecting Bowen populace, was confident enough to take the courageously outrageous step of editing a masterpiece, and musically imaginative enough to add the lovely Seikilos Epitaph Song, billed as the world’s oldest surviving complete composition.

The plague played a leading role in the creation of Lysistrata, and pandemic played a leading part in Theatre-on-the-Isle’s setting of the play.  In wonderful evocation of the ancient Greek theatres, it was played outside in Veterans’ Park. Amusing but firm instructions warned in advance against mingling before and after the production.  The audience on blankets and folding chairs looked like sudoku numbers in their taped-out socially-distanced squares, matching covid-masks with the Greek masks of the actors.  Opening night had no rain but just enough of a coolness for the audience to worry about the thinly-clad actors surviving the evening. Apparently they all did, and will live to play again in the warmth of the new Community Centre’s performance space, which will be built after you vote for it on Sept. 12.

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