Women in Parliament

Jun 27 2019 | By More

★★☆☆☆    Attic Crude

Lauriston Hall: Wed 26 – Fri 28 June 2019
Review by Thom Dibdin

Crude on several levels, amateur company Athens of the North’s project to stage Andrew Wilson’s new translation of Aristophanes’ Women In Parliament is both fascinating and infuriating.

Fascinating, because it is an attempt to give a properly contemporary airing to a play which is not only almost two and half thousand years old, but is also one of the first examples of staged comedy.

Angela Estrada and the Athenian Women. Pic: Gordon Hughes

Infuriating because, with just three performances at the Lauriston Hall, there is little time to hone the production. Moreover, it has had but a dozen rehearsals – with only one, the dress rehearsal, at which all the cast have been present. And, to be honest, it shows.

Wilson’s translation of Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazousae, updates the setting to a contemporary time with such modern ideas as mobile phones and Brexit, but keeps his contempt for politicians very much alive, as the wives of Athens’ citizens steal their husband’s clothes and descend on parliament.

Only the names have changed of the mendacious, self-serving hypocrites, who haven’t thought through the promises they make on the spur of the moment. So there are plenty of references to Johnson, Rees-Mogg and, of course, the slogan “Make Athens Great Again”.

radical new laws

Led by Praxagora (Angela Estrada) and Alpha (Hilary Davies), the women pretend to be men, gain access to the voting chamber and vote through radical new laws to give power to women, arguing that they are much better equipped to make decisions of State, and confining men to the house.

The first laws they enact are that all ownership of goods is forbidden, the State will provide all food and if men want to have sex, they must satisfy an older woman before they may look at a younger.

Chris Allan with Female Bobbies. Pic Gordon Hughes

Meanwhile, Praxagora’s husband Blepyrus (Mike Towers) and their neighbour Marathon Man (Mark Adams), wake up to find their clothes missing. Forced to put on their wives’ nighties when they go outside for their morning shit, they bump into Chremes (Charlie Munro), who relates the news from parliament.

Yes, it really is that coarse. While Estrada and Davies make great job of putting their nine-strong chorus of women on the right track – swearing to the masculine gods and pretending to knowledge they don’t have – Towers and Adams are left with a long passage of comedy based on finding a place to go to the loo.

The issue here is not the level of the jokes, but simply that comedy is not easy. And scatological comedy is notoriously hard if you are to make more than a skid-mark of an impression on any audience. Five year olds may laugh at poo, no matter the context, but the physical comedy inherent in needing a poo, demands a proper clown to squeeze it out.

Then there is the question of delivering Wilson’s rhyming verse translation. Only Chris Allan as Mean Man, a cynical neighbour of Chremes who defies the laws about giving his goods away, succeeds in finding a natural meter. Elsewhere it all feels too forced to work as it might.

hat business

It’s not all bad, just under rehearsed. And some of they physical comedy works fine – notably some nicely done hat business between the male citizens and David Cree, Robert Seaton and Alasdair Watson as slaves.

Chris Allan, Robert Seaton, Charlie Munro and David Cree. Pic Michael Scott

Director Michael Scott makes good use of the playing area, which has such a large thrust that you might call it traverse and the musical element brings things up several notches. Wilson’s words are set to popular tunes, arranged by Mark Adams, which include several that will be recognised by fans of G&S – all delivered with great power by a company that is packed with singing talent.

Politically, despite the pointed references to Brexit and those who propose to foist it upon us, this is a lot more ambiguous than you would have thought. There are plenty of ideas about democracy, feminism emancipation from slavery, lust and greed, there is little by way of resolution.

As it stands, Women in Parliament feels like a sketch of what it might be. At its worst it becomes a caricature of itself, and there is the odd moment worthy of The Art of Coarse Acting.

At its best, however, slapstick and the crudest of comedy, tussle alongside the pointedly political with strong effect. And the singing makes up for any faults.

Running time: One hour and 40 minutes (no interval).
Lauriston Hall, 28 Lauriston Street, EH3 9DJ
Wed 26 – Fri 28 June 2019
Evenings: 7.30pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.

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Comments (2)

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  1. Chris Ferguson says:

    I note your comments about the humour being “crude”, “scatological” and “coarse”. I think it is important to point out that this is a play by Aristophanes, the classical Athenian comedy dramatist. He is well known for that humour! It was not shocking to the classical Athenians but was their type of humour. Through the centuries people have found the humour difficult to cope with for the above reasons, but that is because their moral views are different and we find it “difficult” because of our moral sensibilities are so different; the classical Athenians would not understand what our problem was.

    It is important to remember that this is a central part of what they play is! To remove it and to “clean it up” would mean it is no longer the play that Aristophanes wrote. The important thing is that they have kept the soul and spirit of the play and yet produced it so that it has a very contemporary relevance; and goodness knows there are many things going in our present world that it is relevant to!

    • Chris Ferguson says:

      I wrote the above before seeing the production, but write it knowing how off mark you were in relation to Aristophane’s comedy.

      I have now seen this production. I have to say, I was actually amazed at how they had managed to turn this play, about 2,500 years old, into a production with a hugely contemporary relevance, without losing its original spirit. Seeing other productions of ancient Greek plays. Those that have stuck to the original, have lacked contemporary relevance, or others have been so “adapted” to be contemporary that they lose their original context. I thought this production was wonderful in that It kept the original spirit, but it made it so, so contemporary. The play originally (as so much Greek drama) had contemporary politics at its heart, but “disguised” that in the plot. This production managed to take Aristophane’s play, keep its spirit and yet make its referencing to very, very contemporary to our political scenarios and concerns.

      I felt it was very well acted and had some wonderful singing – which I did not expect but singing was an integral part of the chorus in the original. The translation was not just an off the cuff prior translation, but was specifically done and very, very clever and witty. And the entirely Scottish references, e.g. To peculiarly Scottish goods at the communal “feast” made it very locally relevant to here in Scotland.

      I did find some of the attenuated English accents difficult to understand, especially one I think was supposed to be from the “Black country”, but that’s just because I am not used to the accent. The “Red light” scene I found very funny. Not only did the main character have a Scottish accent and so easier for me to understand, but he reminded me of so many young lads in Scotland on a hard weekend. But the conversion of the “laws” created in Aristophane’s play to a young lad on a heavy night at the W.E in Scotland having to comply with these new laws – and his “dilemma” as he ends up chased by his worst nightmare, instead of his initial drunken dreams, intention and hope for the young, beautiful hooker; pure genius and very, very funny. It was a very Shakespearan scene, mixed also with bawdy Chaucer humour.

      So all in all I find you criticism baffling. To me it makes me think that you really do not have any understanding of Greek drama and specifically Greek comedy and its purpose. It also makes me feel you just do not understand just how clever this production has been in transforming this play into a very contemporary setting, yet keeping the spirit of the original play. It also makes me feel you do not realise just how clever the translation has been; it not only made it contemporary and witty but it managed to keep metre, tone and rhyme. And on top of that, it so often had very poignant references to Scottish culture.

      So all in all, for me I found it very witty, very clever, very enjoyable and it kept its spirit and yet be contemporary. I also found it well preformed. There was nothing wrong with the performance that you imply; maybe the acoustics could have been better to project the performer’s voices better. But that’s my one criticism.

      All in all a very enjoyable evening and performance. But maybe also this shows that a “critic” does not always understand what they are watching and misses the point(s) and “criticises” as a fault, that which is in fact central to the play/production. In their ignorance they see as a “fault” that which is in fact central to and a strength in the play and production! !