Philippa Williams receives a wild education in Bloomsbury.
It is always refreshing to see Aristophanes’ dramas performed. His laughter rings across the centuries. Different parts remain forever relevant to the moment and staging opportunities are tantalising. I was delighted when I heard University College London had chosen Clouds for this year's Greek Play. In this story of a highly unusual learning curve, there is no shortage of irony. I am even more delighted that it is performed traditionally with the first togas I’ve seen for years.
Kyriaki Ioannidou and João Francisco Fisher direct the play, which stars Socrates as the teacher (a wicked contrast to Plato’s rather sombre character). The misguided Strepsiades goes to Socrates' questionable school, a caricature of Sophist instruction, to learn how to worm his way out of trouble. I like UCL’s translation for this school, the 'Thinkstitute'. I had visualised it as some sort of illuminated echoing, pulsating globe. But much to my surprise, it turns out to be a white pointed house, decked with various -ographys and -onomys. Hypnotic strains introduce it.
Clouds is dominated by battles of wits. Circling the set-up are the Cloud chorus members, who dance much better than they sing, and the Arguments. The initial debate between Right and Wrong is well-judged with no props or music; just barehanded grappling. Socrates’ excitement appears to know no bounds at the appearance of the Clouds. One of the best moments in the play has him illuminated in bright winking light (effective use of revolving shiny umbrellas) in his denial of the traditional gods. His exaggerated participation in the Clouds’ dancing gives the situation a brilliantly sinister air.
Those in the principal parts all come up to expectations. But Dominic Hauschild, weaving around the stage as Socrates, steals the show from the moment he appears sorcerer-like in the roof and compares his flourishing ideas to cress. His performance is intriguing. He is every bit the conniving, intelligent rogue, even disconcerting, but will not be disliked. The faithfully captured wordplay is complimented by excellent timing, particularly between Socrates and Felix Medd’s Strepsiades, who react to each other with impeccable incredulity as they pursue their respectively shifty paths. Medd also has good camaraderie with Francesca Petrizzo, playing his feckless son. He is at his best when dishing out audience involvement- the first time I’ve known a Classical play do this. A spectator becomes so concerned that he seizes him from the stage and runs him out of the auditorium to safety.
This is Aristophanes in full glory: wild, sharp, uproarious and very, very funny.