By Gavin Elias
Vetoed Productions’ ‘Lysistrata’ is undeniably a curious beast – on one level, it is the type of crass play that puts one in mind of small child who is constantly pushing the limits of common decency in order to make a point and gain attention, yet viewed another way, it shines as an example of a social commentary that never loses touch with its comedic elements or takes itself too seriously. But as a deeply controversial work, it succeeds first and foremost as an admittedly dirty and sexual comedy and somewhat less so as a vehicle for exploring the role of women in modern society.
A modern adaption of the Greek playwright Aristophanes’ ancient farcical comedy, ‘Lysistrata’ details the ultimate battle of the sexes in its depiction of an uprising against political, social and sexual male hegemony. Amidst the women of Athens’ increasingly desperate attempts to stop a crippling war between the city states of Athens and Sparta, the play centers on the shockingly (or perhaps predictably) effective implementation of a ban on sex by the female population, with the goal of forcing the men to end the conflict by depriving them of their inexorable desire. The inspirational Lysistrata takes leadership of the strike, and attempts to maintain the women’s resolve as bodily urges and irritated male soldiers and politicians conspire to disrupt the movement.
Although starting rather slowly, with its introduction to the principal players and the exposition of their plan dragging somewhat, the play pertly speeds up as the foreplay ended and the confrontations with the men began. Acerbic one-liners were whirled by both sides, and both masculinity and femininity were mocked mercilessly in the ensuing turmoil, which was delivered along with a healthy dose of subtle and flagrant sexual references, puns and insults. It is safe to say that ‘Lysistrata’ never skirted the controversy its subject matter inherently creates, but admirably confronted it head on, in some cases even exposing the hypocrisy contained within such societal stereotypes.
On the whole, the acting was remarkably good; the vast majority of roles were performed with an exuberance that provided a strong base for the comic repartee that was so integral to the play. As the eponymous lead, Maggie Ranson was suitably earnest in her depiction of the activist Lysistrata, yet she never seemed to truly take center stage; as she primarily played the straight (wo)man in the vituperative verbal gunfights, she was consistently and perhaps inevitably overshadowed by some of the more overtly humourous characters. These included the lewd Kleonike (played with appropriate zest by Francesca Dill), the caustic-tongued Lampito (Sarah Latremoille, with an equally tangy Southern drawl) and the no-nonsense feminist Koryphaios of Women (Kyla Weinrib-Young). Adding yet another robust comic component was Owen Woodside in the role of the chauvinist Archon, whose frenetic and doomed attempts to exert male dominance over the revolting women were both entertaining and provocative. The further addition of Sinan Malik’s Koryphaios of Men imbued the play with an appreciated streak of stand-up comedy – his seemingly random list of ’10 reasons why wine is better than women’ perfectly captured the farcical nature of the piece. Kinesias (Jake Danto-Clancy) and Myrrhine (Katherine Scott) provided further sexual humour and tension to the play; the pair handled a tricky scene involving a mattress and some duplicitous ointment rather adeptly.
Intriguingly, it is the feminist message of ‘Lysistrata’ – its most emphasized and advertised element – that I found to be the most lacking in the production. In staging the play, director Shaya Alexandra Mulcahy sought to convey ‘women’s rights, strength and determination’, but while this message was certainly expressed onstage, I couldn’t help note that in its indefatigable quest to fill every line with sexual innuendo, ranging from the artful to the asinine, ‘Lysistrata’ seemed to relish the misogynistic and sexist slurs it professes to rail against. And while it is fine to assert the play shows women ‘fighting for their rights’, it must be pointed out that it also takes great pride in showing them in the less noble ‘cheese-grater position’. By embracing its own sparkling, gleeful wit, the play seemed to almost gloat at points in the knowledge of its own reckless abandon and edginess. What struck me was that although ‘Lysistrata’ is undoubtedly a controversial and charged piece of theatre, in attempting to walk the razor-thin tightrope over the dichotomist pits of mindless comedy and erudite social commentary, it consistently fell headfirst into the former. As a result, the play dissolved on more than one occasion into an orgy of genitalia references that accomplish only one part of Vetoed Production’s trumpeted aims; while such humour invariably offends, it does not always compensate with an appropriate social message. And there is nothing innately wrong with this. I certainly enjoyed the play for what (for the vast majority of the time) it was: an obscene yet deeply witty exploration of the dynamics of sexuality, and the power our most primal urges hold over our more cerebral wants. But consequentially, ‘Lysistrata’s more serious and preaching elements suffer, and in many cases the activist feminist values pronounced in the programme do not really manifest onstage.
So at its core, ‘Lysistrata’ seeks very much to be a satirical social commentary – one that would ram home its ancient (although ostensibly updated) musings on gender equality and the role of women in society through shock, offense and crude jokes about erections. Although in this respect it perhaps only partially succeeds, its far greater achievement lies in its nimble execution of the pervasive humour that weaves the piece together. For ‘Lysistrata’, like one big sexist joke in itself, shows us the inherent hypocrisy and absurdity of the fundamental aspects of our sexuality, and though we may be offended, we can’t help but laugh.