Classics Society has, all unknowingly but with impeccable timing, chosen to
Lysistrata in the very week that Messrs Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in met
on 38th parallel north, the border between North and South Korea, in
the first faltering steps of amity between the two countries. This priapic, anti-war comedy from 411 BCE
by Aristophanesis the account of Lysistrata's zealous mission to bring peace to the
city-states of Athens and Sparta, riven by the Peloponnesian War. It's
interesting that Kim Jong-un's sister,
Kim Yo-jong, who holds the Orwellesque post of Director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Workers' Party of Korea
is reported to have played a key role behind the scenes in the North's apparent
acquiescence in a peace initiative. The Lysistrata parallel is hardly exact,
but one may speculate idly whether the sanction imposed on any North
apparatchik caught out by the regime pushing any non-sanctioned detail of
policy might include compulsory sexual abstinence.
Be that as it may, Lysistrata (trans. 'disperser of the army') convinces the good matrons of Athens to deny sex to their husbands in order to compel them to sue for peace, and the play (a short 50 mins. running time) ends in a komos (denouement) presenting the reconciliation of men and women, husbands and wives, while pledges for peace negotiations are made. The basic structure of the play is simple: a prologue intoned behind us in Ancient Greek rang out, then a rather sparsely-populated chorus popped up with a brief agon (debate), first in Greek then in English about the merits of the sex strike, and a decision was made to give it a try. This was succeeded by a burst of a parabasis (a sung ode in Greek which here owed something, I thought, to Gregorian chant).
Thence a series of comic, almost farcical scenes ensued, demonstrating cause and effect of the proposed action. I say farcical because I felt that the presence of the erect phalluses (it seems of leather in the 4th century BCE; swap the leather for cloth and you have the Oriel concept) and the lack of gender specificity of the casting (at the time of Aristophanes all actors would have been male) made the impact of the peace/war discussion appear a little diluted. I've always thought the play is primarily about peace rather than the empowering of women, and that women are the cunning conduits for replacing war by peace.
But director Callista McLaughlin, who kindly gave me her thoughts afterwards on the production and its staging, suggested that the company had very reasonably focused more on the artistic aspects of the production rather than the politics or gender issues. The play has sensibly been pared down by omitting all of Aristophanes' contemporary references – personalities and local events - that would fail to resonate with a 21st century audience, but care has been taken to illustrate certain aspects of the authentic staging of yore – chorus, simple but colourful costumes, and just the right balance of Ancient Greek and English in the script. There was a simple blackboard set, splattered with glitter and adorned with a scrawled erect penis and vulva, and at the end we were treated to a song and a dance preparatory to peace talks.
From the members of the cast who made a particular impression, Lydia Antigoni's Calonice was an abrasive warmonger, loud in his condemnation of the women, Tasha Bharucha was a boldly-spoken Proboulos, and Peace (here called Reconciliation) was Amelia Bowman, an enviably rubber-limbed gymnast, while Maddy Webb, in a boldly owlish T-shirt, inventive in reaction acting and lascivious in mime, raised a lot of laughter as the sex-starved Cinesias. Frustrated by his pink dressing-gowned wife's endless list of excuses for inaction, when she asks: 'You haven't got a rug?' he snaps: 'I don't need one. I just want to shag you!'
The hearteningly large audience included a contingent of sixth formers from Matthew Arnold School in Botley who are studying the play, and their laughter and applause was a measure of the success of the venture.