April 23, 2018, by Helen Lovatt
Lysistrata returns to the Lakeside
Lynn Fotheringham previews the latest Greek drama production on campus
Five years ago Lakeside Arts and Nottingham New Theatre inaugurated a new collaborative project which gives theatre-loving students the opportunity to work with the Lakeside’s professional team on a production. The first play chosen for production was Aristophanes’ Lysistrata – using the Penguin translation by our own Alan Sommerstein – which allows a large cast, and specifically a large cast of women, to be involved in the production (see my post on the 2015 New Theatre Women of Troy for the perennial problem of finding parts for women). The project was a great success – one student even got to write up her experience for The Guardian, and Emma McDonald, who played Lysistrata, has gone on to stage career. The Lakeside-New Theatre partnership has been repeated every years since, with plays as diverse as Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and last year’s Blue Stockings by Jessica Swale. Along the way they’ve included a Greek tragedy, Sophocles’ Oedipus (in Steven Berkoff’s version), which I wrote about here. This year, director Martin Berry has decided to revisit the Lysistrata.
Last week, the final week of rehearsals, I had the opportunity to sit in. As if to demonstrate the versatility of these ancient plays, it’s going to be very different from the way it was in 2013. That was the first occasion when Martin directed Greek drama, and he came up with an innovative ‘way in’ to the play, inspired by the knowledge that the audiences would contain plenty of A-level Drama students: the initial set-up was a classroom in which the play was being studied, where one day the students decide that the only way to get to grips with the material is to push aside the desks and start performing it. You can see archive production photos as well as the fabulous poster and even a short video of rehearsals here. In a similar way, the production of Oedipus started with the actors talking to the audience about the experience of dramatising the play. It was, by the way, one of the funniest productions of Oedipus I have ever seen – deliberately so, I hasten to add – until the moment when suddenly the truth was out and things weren’t funny any more.
In both of these productions the Choruses were delivered as speech rather than song, and Martin acknowledges that much of the Chorus-material was cut. One of the things he wanted to do this year was really to get to grips with that aspect of ancient drama. He says that it’s only now, on this third production that he’s felt ‘comfortable with the chorus, both personally and in terms of feeling able to guide the students towards it’. Composer Lawrence Cuthbert was brought in to create new music for all the Choruses, exploiting a range of pop-py, punk-y styles to characterise the opposing forces of the women and the men who clash in this play, with the women instituting a sex-strike in order to force the men to end the war. Martin has lots of experience directing professional companies in musicals, both at the Lakeside and elsewhere, and this production is set outside the ‘Acropolis nightclub’ – I got to see the set on Friday, and it’s a wonderfully evocative blend of ancient and modern.
The photo above shows the women in action in rehearsal, throwing body and soul into their parts as they fight for peace. But in the midst of all the anger there’s a more reflective moment when they explain to the audience why they have as much right as the men to give advice to their city. They list all the civic duties they have performed over the course of their lives – all the religious rites of passage that young Athenian women growing up would experience. The music slows and becomes lyrical, the frenetic dancing dies down as they solemnly recite. It was, for me, an incredibly moving moment in the midst of the bawdy and frenetic stage-action of Aristophanic comedy, a reminder of the religious context of all this drama. It doesn’t have quite the same effect as that turn from humour to tragedy in the Oedipus, but that’s appropriate too: this is a different kind of play.
If it had that kind of effect on me in a black-box studio with the actors in street clothes, I can’t wait for the finished version, with costume and lighting and all the trapping to enhance the performances. Buy your tickets now! (Students: if you’re willing to volunteer to distribute/collect audience-questionnaires, I’m prepared to pay for two tickets per show – e-mail cadre at nottingham dot ac dot uk.)
(Lysistrata runs Tuesday 24th-Saturday 28th April, 7.30pm, with Saturday matinee at 2pm. Tickets are £15 waged, £13 unwaged, £11 restricted view and £5 for Nottingham University students presenting a student-card.)
Images (c) Lakeside Arts
Top-right: the women in action in rehearsal
Middle-left: director Martin Berry leads the cast in a reading of the play
Bottom right: promotional poster