Three years ago, as America voted for change which they could believe in, I - and millions of other people like me - pondered what was surely the central question: whither now satire? And, most importantly, what would happen to modern adaptations of Aristophanes.
The challenge was not to be misunderestimated for the Bush years had provided ample wars and comic weaponry; no production of Lysistrata was complete without at least one Bush joke and Obama could never put out such rich material.
So here in 2011 the Actors of Dionysus revive their successful 2010 tour for production at The Rose Theatre in sleepy Kingston. The theatre is modern and large but also intimate, a fact of which the cast take full advantage: a perfect venue for Aristophanes perhaps. The production also (perhaps unintentionally) begins to provide an answer for what plays, whose action is centred around a war-torn city, should look like when war is not exercising the public imagination.
James Albrecht's confident production is modern dress and uses David (AOD founder and now constitutional monarch) Stuttard's 2010 translation as its basis. However this is not a crude modern adaptation but a melange that finds it reason d'etre in the original material so does not attempt to make sweeping parallels. A general anti-war message is rejected and a pro-feminist point of view are abandoned. And strangely it is this lack of intention - even anger - which lies at the heart of the play's success. The message is a civic one - the play becomes about "the little guy" or in this case girl. It is all very Big Society.
It is also a rollickingly good romp: fast-paced, visually impressive and funny. The set design is nearly disappointing in its understatement: a few grey plinths and a gateway draw out the dull masculinity of the world our heroine lives in. It is not until at the end of the first scene as the gate is sealed with "DO NOT ENTER" tape that its sexually-explicit nature is cleverly revealed. And it should be impressed that this production is one that positively revels in the sexual nature of its material: the jokes and double entendres thunder at one like bullets from a machine gun. In this sense it is truly a production with its roots in its Greek originator.
As the proof of a pudding is allegedly in its eating, the success of any Lysistrata is in it leading lady. Here we have a real gem in Philippa Peak. A hard part to play as I have said many times, somehow Peak - perhaps freed from the shackles of strict feminism which infuses many productions - twists her character so she becomes lively and even charismatic. She is even - and this is not something I have ever said about a portrayal of Lysistrata before - likeable and fun.
Yet despite a bravura performance, Peak does not walk away with the show. This is because of the quality of the ensemble cast, who imbue these excessive archetypes with a sense of humanity. It should be noted that this production is staged with five actors (a company decision, I believe) who double and triple as other characters and the chorus. This was perhaps the one major flaw in the production: the limited cast took some of the emphasis off the role of the chorus in the play. Their reconciliation towards the end of the play - although nicely and touchingly done - lacked the dramatic impact of that which a fuller chorus could have achieved.
Although generally fast-paced and brilliantly choreographed (Janine Fletcher), the production flagged and seemed uncertain at times. Yet this was always temporary and the direction soon re-found its rhythm. Two other scenes are worthy of note: the Myrrhine and Kinesias scene (here they are called rather obviously Fanny and Dick) lacked the subtlety and build of other productions but makes up for this with a) an appropriately massive phallus and b) the superb, OTT hilarity with which the scene is acted by Marie Lawrence and Joseph Wicks. The other is the reconciliation scene between the Spartans (Wicks again) and Athenians (Greg Haiste), which is changed to the format of a quiz show in which in order to win the two combatants are forced to rewrite history by giving incorrect but politic answers. The scene is an ingenious and fantastic twist on Aristophanes' dubious history, although perhaps it is somewhat over-egged.
The surprise of the production is that in an age where our concerns are economic not martial and where politics lacks the visceral anger but is more impotetently frustratated (as David Cameron might say), Albrect, Stuttard and co. have produced an interesting piece of satire for the age of uncertainty. The mask of overt sexual humour does not quite hide the subtle nature of the play's message. In fact, its layers bring this out. By getting away from obvious paralells, the play says that in its detachment we can find a better rounded interpretation of Aristophanes for a modern audience and is all the better for that.