Philippa Williams finds a croaking cornucopia of good things in the Cambridge Greek Play.
On a rainy day- fit for frogs, as pointed out in the pre-show talk- the Cambridge Arts Theatre proudly presents its own amphibians. Director Helen Eastman returns for the triennial Greek Play, which takes the form of a tragicomic double-bill, something not done at this event since 1927. Prometheus Bound (dubiously attributed to Aeschylus) is the first up: Prometheus, a Titan, is chained up by a furious Zeus for championing the cause of us humans. Aristophanes’ Frogs follows, a comedy of wits where the race is on to resurrect a great poet. Helen Eastman paired these plays, as she explained to the theatre before rehearsals, to show the sheer scope of Greek drama, by successive performances of two genres.
And they do. Eastman, who has directed opera and also runs the poetry-reading Live Canon ensemble, has worked closely with composer Alex Silverman to produce a sensitive musical score for the production, which is complemented by some creditable singing in both the tragedy and the comedy. These are two questioning plots, and they are adapted with originality and spontaneity.
In a drama particularly polarised in physical action, Henry Jenkinson gives an impressive portrayal of the pinioned Prometheus, immoveable in body and mind, roaring heavenwards for the benefit of Zeus, the presider over a 'regime'- and defending himself to his anxious visitors- who occasionally appear stilted, but the onus is on them to convey suitable physical restlessness from an unavoidably one-sided stance. The unmasked Chorus members, led by Katherine McDonald, work together well. This is the Play's choreography at its best. Using wellies, buckets and chalk, the deepest elements of Prometheus are put to us. Mortals blinded at first by simple paper masks feverishly scratch on boards proffered by the Chorus, the knowledge Prometheus attributed to them. Ironically the water used to smear out their handiwork is the same water that is used to bathe their deteriorating benefactor’s brow. He will not back down.
As Prometheus is plunged into darkness, we speed on deeper into the Underworld, ferried by a Charon more dashing than ever before, in the Frogs. The god Dionysus visits Hades to stage a competition between Aeschylus and Euripides, meeting quite some characters on the way. The English translation is here handled brilliantly. It is more than daringly independent from the original; the famous Koax-Koax is peppered with Ribbits. Yet Old Comedy is very much alive within its contemporary setting. We are treated to teases, puns, and an Aristophanic wink from afar in the form of Downing Street cameos. Hades comes across as a delightfully bohemian flatshare, eccentric personalities jostling for their turn in the lime [green] light. Green is everywhere, even to Aeschylus’ braces and a WC seat. It's not easy being green, says Dionysus. Geoffrey Kirkness and Freddie Crossley are nicely defiant and goading respectively as our Aeschylus and Euripides in competition and there is a wonderfully funny turn from Joey Akubeze as Heracles. As for Eastman’s frogs, clad in swimming hats and onesies- they steal the show with a range of dancing and vocal talents.
It is an ideal pairing for the double-bill. We have a menacing portrayal of possible imminent death, and a tongue-in-cheek depiction of it in actual form. We are reminded of the timeless fragility and defencelessness of humanity, and yet the enduring ability to laugh at it. The perspectives are shrewd and the humour perfectly placed. Needless to say, that ribbiting-koaxing stayed in my head all the way home.
Until Oct 19
Credit for image: John Watts