FRED MAYNARD gets behind this typical May Week fare.
Pembroke Gardens, 5 PM, June 19th – 21st, £5.
As May Week shows go, if they have to happen (and apparently they do) The Clouds of Aristophanes is an appropriate pick: the text reads like an entire three-year Cambridge degree sped up. Like Elias Wynshaw’s Strepsiades, we will all eventually give up on serious scholarly inquiry, turn to the magical powers of complete pseudo-intellectual bullshit, and then prance about for the rest of our lives reminding anyone with whom we argue that we went to Cambridge, shouting the rhetorical equivalent of “Look over there! A tortoise wearing a hat!” and then peg it for the exit.
Sure, Aristophanes has dated badly over the last 2,000 years, as Tristram Fane-Saunders’ Socrates acknowledges when a pun requiring knowledge of Ancient Greek noun genders falls slightly flat: “English is a non-inflected language, but that was actually very funny!” Indeed, the fact that Socrates appears at all is a reminder that to the original audience this caricature would have been as bitingly current as a Michael Gove impression today, or would be, if anyone did impressions of Michael Gove that didn’t consist of clawing their own eyes out in horror. Luckily, though, nothing much truly changes, and the presentation of Socrates as waspish Richard Dawkins figure utterly incredulous that anyone doesn’t agree exactly with his interpretation of the world rings disconcertingly true. (“Zeus? I suppose you believe in nymphs and virgin births too” etc etc chortle etc)
Like every hellish supervision partner you’ve had rolled into one, the denizens of Socrates’ Thinkstitute employ every skull-cracking bit of sophism in the book to try and prove that black is white and interesting-sounding verbal gymnastics is far preferable to actual thought; I imagine the script contained the seeds of roughly fourteen Malcolm Gladwell mega-bestsellers. The chorus of Clouds themselves float dreamily around the Pembroke lawns like background characters from a Titian having just ingested weapons-grade ketamine, which is exactly as alternately funny and annoying as it sounds. You get the sense that Socrates’ crowd was very much the in-crowd of its day, and the message of the play comes across as a warning that just because you’re rebelling against fusty old tradition and superstition doesn’t necessarily mean your alternative is much better, a lesson notable radicals of today could take on board.
The play has all of the traditional May Week show vices in spades (by now I think we’d be unsatisfied if one actually went well): fluffed lines, corpsing, added swearing Cos That Makes It Funnier, and the rest. Still, a nice use of the lawns, and it’s good to see the Pembroke Players’ reliable old wooden blocks making an appearance, along with a reminder, were it needed, that the PP have a coffin and they will make use of it. Come along if the word “arsestronomy” makes you laugh, or if you like comically large penises (“Funny for 2,000 years”). If not, hey, just sit around and bask in the knowledge that however stupid Cambridge can make you feel, Socrates was probably just winging it the whole time too.