Lysistrata - review

by James Wenley / 03 August, 2015

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Has anyone written a better sex comedy since Aristophanes did it 2400 years ago? Lysistrata has innuendo, erect phalluses, and a full on battle of the sexes, but strip it bare and you find a hard-hitting political message about the futility of ongoing war amongst the Greek states. Phwoarr.

Lysistrata convinces the women of Athens and Sparta to abstain from sex until their husbands make peace – “open minds, closed legs”. This frustrates the men no end, but the trouble is the women have problems sticking to it too.

Director Michael Hurst loosely updates the text, throws in some 7th Century lyric poetry for the Classics nerds, packs it with physical gags, and makes a joke of explaining archaic references whenever they come up. You might be surprised how much of it remains Aristophanes, or as close to it as we can get. Yes, those Greeks are dirty, and judging by our enjoyment, we are clearly just as much.

John Gibson’s neo-Greek discordant music takes some getting used to, and it’s jarring the first few times the women break into song and interpretative dance for the chorus moments. The pay-off comes when the men get to have their go. Not natural dancers, they fling their bodies around with amusing commitment. With dance offs and slapstick fight scenes, Shona McCullagh’s choreography is likely the most outrageous you’ll see all year. In Act Two the cast collectively pop the Viagra and treat us to ever madder sequences, as both the men and women succumb to cabin fever.

What a cast! Amanda Billing’s Lysistrata channels both the sensual and spiritual currents of the play, and though there is much frivolity, her plea for peace is seriously felt. The Athenian women played by Jennifer Ward-Lealand, Sia Trokenheim, Hannah Tasker-Poland, Naomi Cohen and Darien Takle are an absolute hoot. So too is Lucinda Hare as the Spartan Lampito who gives her many great one-liners in a quasi-Russian accent. In an off-stage drama, Hare received an injury during preview, meaning with three hours’ rehearsal, dancer Lisa Greenfield went on as stunt-double and Doris got to single-handedly take on all the men. She’s great, keep her.

With war on the brain, the men are portrayed as buffoons. Paul Glover is an over-eager grunt, Andrew Grainger and Fasitua Amosa are incompetent officers, and possibly channelling Dr Strangelove by way of Rocky Horror’s Dr Scott, Peter Hayden’s elderly misogynist milks his motorised wheelchair for all it’s worth. Cameron Rhodes is a slimy politician wearing a rosette of National Party blue, who huffs that the women have been given too much latitude, too much freedom. Lysistrata satisfyingly takes him down a peg.

Troy Garton’s costumes hug and accentuate in all the right the places. The women are a vision in stunning designer dresses (Amanda Billing’s chiffon outfit would make Pippa Middleton jealous), and the men spunky in their military fatigues. Hurst operates an equal opportunity policy when it comes to stripping, and the entire cast cavort in their underwear for much of the play. It all plays out on a long catwalk stage covered in carpet, designed by Rachael Walker, so you often feel like you are at a tennis match as you move your head back and forth to make sure you aren’t missing any of the action (and for a play about abstinence, there’s a lot of it!).

The production does feel slightly dated. Not Ancient Athenian dated, but more like it is stuck in the last century. It doesn’t really engage with the 2010s version of the big conversations about gender equality and rape culture. Nor is Aristophanes used as a platform to criticise our recent military deployments. The focus is on inoffensive offensive farce, rather than calling our own society out.

This Hurstified Lysistrata is virile, cheeky, over-the-top, and completely delivers on its promise of entertainment. The most fun you can have in a theatre this winter.

Lysistrata runs to 23rd August at Q Theatre, atc.co.nz

Photo credit: Michael Smith

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