The Cambridge Greek Play: Phenonmenal

Greek Play

Greek Play - Credit: Archant

The Greeks had a word for it – and that was phenomenal. Once again, the Cambridge students have played a blinder.

This year’s triennial Greek Play was a double bill of Antigone and Lysistrata with Cambridge students directed, for the third time, by professional director Helen Eastman – and once again it was a triumph of theatrical art. One translation of the Greek work “theatre” is “the place where you see God”. The translation has been questioned but this show was something to live for.

Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone and Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata present two rebel women whose stories are as moving and amusing now as when they were written 2,400 years ago.

Each of these productions with their exemplary performances would have been a tremendous feat of excellence in English, never mind in flowing, expressive and impressive Ancient Greek. They take you back to the time when they were written and bring those issues right up to now.

Sophocles’ Antigone tells the story of the daughter of Oedipus. Having been abandoned as a baby because of a prediction that he would grow up to kill his father and marry his mother, he survives to do exactly that because he doesn’t know who is parents are. As my grandmother always said: the more you run away from a problem, the faster you run towards it.

Thus, Antigone is Oedipus’s daughter by Oedipus’s own mother Jocasta.

Antigone’s brothers (also by Jocasta) Polyneices and Eteocles, kill each other in a civil war. Eteocles is fighting for the king, Creon, and is given a burial with full honours. Polyneices is considered a traitor by Creon and denied a burial. His body is to be left as carrion.

Most Read

Antigone defies the king and gives her brother Polyneices a make-shift burial. She says man’s law (the King’s) cannot be above the law of the gods, which is to bury the dead. She is caught and herself buried – alive in a cave.

Both the blind prophet Teiresias and King Creon’s son Haemon (who is engaged to Antigone) try to persuade Creon he is wrong to kill Antigone and that wise men have too much sense to be stubborn. When Creon is adamant, Haemon breaks into Antigone’s cave only to find that she has hanged herself.

Haemon then kills himself with his sword and is brought on stage covered in blood. Creon damns himself for this calamity and his wife kills herself too. It’s all bad, bad, bad.

Aristophanes’ Lysistrata is a feisty heroine of a similar spirit but this time it’s funny. To stop the war between Athens and Sparta, she leads the women, ultimately of both cities, in a sex strike. The comedy comes not just from the men’s desperation but Antigone’s having to stop the women giving in and making excuses to leave the women’s sit-in at the Acropolis.

Those who played the lead roles in one play become the chorus in the other. So Evie Butcher, who plays Antigone in the first play, got a laugh in the second when she protested: “I’ve got to bury my brother!”

Both plays were performed in modern dress – which gave great immediacy to the show. The chorus in Antigone are men and women in smart business suits. Lysistrata opens with a heavily pregnant woman pushing a pram and includes an old lady with a curly wig, glasses and a zimmer frame.

The politicians are Boris Johnson and Donald Trump – both with similar blond wigs. Boris comes on stage on a zip-wire.

An inspired score for both plays was created by composer Alex Silverman so as well as the traditional Greek chorus, which tells the story in a powerful rhythm, this was a chorus in the modern sense which sang.

All the performances were superb but special mention must go to Evie Butcher and Kaiti Soultana as Antigone and her sister Ismene. Orlando Gibbs as Creon, Stanley Thomas the guard who brings bad news “It was nothing to do with me, mate, I’m just the messenger”, Joe Sefton as Haemon and Jack Hawkins as Teiresias, who also has a fine singing voice.

In Lysistrata, there was immaculate comic timing from Natasha Cutler in the title role, Hollie Witton as pram-pushing Calonice, Amber Reeves-Pigott as Myrrhine, (whose husband comes to woo her throwing her baby for her to catch) Rosanna Suppa (as the athletic old lady Stratyllis who gives the men a good thrashing) and Saskia Ross as Lampito, the woman from Sparta, who shows off her muscles and is a bit street.

Lysistrata had lovely elements of pantomime with topical jokes, song and dance throughout – including high kicks and tap and at one point, the audience was invited to sing along.

The inspired score and accomplished orchestra kept both plays buoyant. It was all over far too soon – I could have watched it for a year. As the Greeks might have said: Euge Pasin (Well done, everyone.)