A refreshing rewrite: Reviewing STAG’s “Lysistrata”

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[Written by Hannah George ]

[Image Credits: Tom Lindsay]

Stepping into the Scottish Youth Theatre for the final night of STAG’s sell out mainstage production of Lysistrata, the audience is invited into the intimate and sultry backstage world of a Burlesque club in New York, 1927. As the seats begin to fill, Lysistrata is illuminated by a single spotlight, sipping red wine and pondering over her book, setting the tone for an unconventional retelling of Aristophanes’ Ancient Greek play, first performed in 411 BC. Charlotte Smith’s rewriting of the play sets the anti-war comedy against the backdrop of the Prohibition era, a turbulent period of gang violence, crime, and gender politics.

Despite this dramatic setting, the production maintains its comedic potential, leading the audience through the execution of Lysistrata’s farcical plan to negotiate peace by persuading the wives from rival gangs to go on a sex-strike. Written, directed and produced by women, the play amplifies and brings nuance to the female voice, in a refreshing contrast from the original. To take just one example, the character of Ismenia, hardly present in Aristophanes’ script, plays a crucial role in STAG’s adaptation when it is discovered that she knows how to distil highly illicit absinthe. The women devise a new plan; one that does not rely on withholding sex, but on their intelligence, solidarity and Ismenia’s secret recipe.

Co-Director, Katy Green, said their adaptation is “closer to a Marxist feminist concept of Lysistrata”, and the production successfully achieves this, placing emphasis on collective, collaborative action as the women gain and redistribute power on their own terms. The female chorus becomes the driving force of the narrative, delivering moments of comedy, wit and tragedy with equal skill and impact. The unity of the women is highlighted by choreographed sequences of movement and dance, which are executed with precision and energy, propelling the play forward.

Each character in the fourteen-person cast brings a new personality to the stage, from the grumpy Mr Spartan to the hilarious Lampito. While the New York accents of some of the characters occasionally falter, the performances of both Lysistrata and Clint, her business partner and admirer, are believable and captivating throughout. With the new depth afforded by Smith’s script, Cara Stewart gives a powerful performance of Lysistrata, commanding the space, events and characters with ease and measure.

The performance is still underpinned by the sex comedy of the original, but it is the depiction of real female friendships, in all their complexity, that STAG’s production revels in. In particular, the relationship between Lysistrata and Myrrine explores the guilt and weight of unspoken words between two friends who have drifted apart. The urgent need to end the war forces them to stop competing and to work together instead. This moment of reconciliation offers the audience a glimpse of Lysistrata’s vulnerability and deep need for female friendship beneath her fiercely proud and independent exterior.

The design and production of the play brings it to life with style yet simplicity, allowing the acting to come to the forefront. The costume, hair and makeup bring out the decadence and glamour of New York in the 1920s, while the warm, moody lighting and subtle jazz music draws us deeper into Lysistrata’s complex world. The space is used effectively by the actors, who disappear behind the curtains and reappear through doors, in the recognisable fast-paced style of a farce. A slightly unconvincing gunshot wound to Lysistrata’s arm and malfunctioning cocktail glasses bring moments of inadvertent comedy to the play, but the actors proceed with professionalism and never break out of character.

The performance shimmers with witty lines throughout, punctuated by the audiences’ laughter and applause. STAG manages to strike a balance between a night of entertainment and a thought-provoking piece of theatre, transforming an outdated play into a call to action that delivers an empowering message about the value and strength of female friendships. The ending of the play is a satisfying, cliff-hanging plot twist that marks a decisive departure from Aristophanes. Lysistrata’s sacrificial act of friendship solidifies the creativity, intelligence and innovation of STAG’s adaptation and leaves the audience to reflect on current gender relations and the agency of women in the world today.

Student Theatre at Glasgow’s production of Lysistrata was performed at the Scottish Youth Theatre 3rd – 5th December 2019.


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