The Cambridge Greek Play: Prometheus and The Frogs
PATRICK BROOKS is left utterly torn by an inconsistent double bill.
Cambridge Arts Theatre, Wed 16th – Sat 19th, 2.30pm and 7.45pm, £20/15
Helen Eastman’s directorial vision for these two ancient plays is colossal, almost to the point of hubris. Visually stunning costumes, a cornucopia of props, violent lighting, exuberantly choreographed musical numbers, and a huge cast all speaking in frickin’ Ancient Greek in two vastly different plays.
I’ve no idea how the consistently talented actors managed to learn all of their speeches, and they deliver their utterly meaningless – to both them and us, I assume – lines with fluency, rhythm, and often impressive musicality. The two plays both have original scores composed by Alex Silverman and at times I felt like I was watching an opera.
But the sheer quantity of effects, ideas, images and sounds presented sometimes worked to the show’s detriment. The powerful visual opening of the first play, the tragedy Prometheus, with the fallen god being chained to the top of a ladder high above the stage, is undermined by the booming orchestra playing with such gusto that I could barely hear the actors’ painstakingly learnt Greek.
Prometheus, although beautifully realised and acted, was also held back by the fact that, to be blunt, the text is shite. Nothing really happens. The only actual drama occurs in the first scene (where Prometheus is bound to a tall ladder for being naughty) and the final scene where Prometheus has an argument with the very suave Hermes, played by Joey Akubeze.
For an hour in between Prometheus, ably and doughtily played by Henry Jenkinson (the poor guy has to groan a lot) just sits there on his ladder whilst a strikingly dressed chorus flap paper vultures about him and splash water on themselves. The dialogue grew repetitive (“I’ve been bound! Oh the horror! By Zeus! What a fiend!” “You’ve been bound! How terrible and unjust and unfair that is, oh cruelly treated Prometheus!” etc. ad nauseam) and I must confess that at one point I fell asleep.
A play where the only action happens in the first five minutes and from then on the protagonist is immobile and a succession of people just dance vaguely around him does not make for compelling watching, no matter how great you try to make it look and sound.
I took my seat after the interval feeling disappointed and not expecting much of The Frogs; I even asked my friend to poke me if I fell asleep again. But for the hour of The Frogs’ duration I never had to be poked once. I was too busy laughing. This ancient comedy by Aristophanes is quite simply a tour de force, and a stunning contrast to the dreary, dull and intractable Prometheus that precedes it.
I don’t even really know where to begin; it’s a fast-paced, colourful, hilarious romp/farce/political satire/lewd Apatow-style gross out/everything in between. Charlie Merriman and Mairin O’Hagan carry the show as the incorrigible Dionysus and his put upon slave Xanthias, and manage to be consistently funny despite a fairly sizeable language barrier and a couple of millennia worth of cultural distance.
The show has everything and I can’t even begin to mention everything worthy of mentioning. The plot, involving going to hell and back because of Dionysus’ hatred of Alice Oswald (seriously) is largely an irrelevant means to throw gag after gag at the audience, the variety of which is mindboggling. There’s broad slapstick; humorous meta-textual asides to the audience; a brilliant musical number where the chorus all dress up as frogs and leap around; bubbles pour over the stage and you find the tune is still in your head four hours later; a giant see-saw; a rap-battle (ably performed by Freddie Crossley and Geoffrey Kirkness); brave near-nudity; and at one point a crazed skeletal torturer paddling our heroes on the bum with steadily disintegrating leeks. I kid you not.
The cultural updates and references to the Beatles, Nick Clegg and Robbie Williams work a treat, and the Parabasis (an improvised – in Ancient Greek – interlude by Andy Brock and Laurens Macklon) is worth the price of admission alone.
Overall, I’m not really sure where this leaves me. The two plays are so utterly different: Prometheus staid, ambitious but ultimately a failure, The Frogs a brilliant side-splitting thrill ride. There’s no way I can judge them both together. As an evening of entertainment, though, The Cambridge Greek Play Committee have undeniably created, through Herculean efforts, something you just won’t really be able to see anywhere else.