The overlap between 3000-year-old Greek comedy and Panto is well established. Aristophanes is the (literal) granddaddy of all ribaldry. The surviving texts of the Greek comedians and tragedians come from competitions routinely held in festivals celebrating Dionysus – who, as demonstrated in The Frogs – doesn’t object to a little ridicule despite his deity.
The central McGuffin of The Frogs is a lament for the good old days of the tragic poetry of Euripides – hence Dionysus and his slave, Xanthias, set off to Hades to find him and bring him back from the dead. All manner of comic obstacles emerge in ever-increasing complexity and, naturally, hilarity ensues – culminating in a literary smackdown between Euripides and (not yet dead) Aeschylus.
At the heart of Aristophanes’ play is a messy road trip embarked on for the sake of literary rivalry – concepts that do not date. Likewise, the ancient story’s set-up relies on a certain amount of backstage farce and the frustrations of performers and playwrights; concepts that have also endured and occupy almost a subgenre of their own. It is therefore somewhat of a pity that Spymonkey’s production seems overly anxious that modern audiences won’t understand the plot at its core. As such they rather labour the comedy with bits and self-referential shtick – and then throw in self-conscious exposition and historical context – rather than invest in the timeless narrative.
However, The Frogs, literally is about frustrated thespians trying to win the favour of an audience – so as a template for modernisation, pretty much any theatre troupe will have material to colour in those lines. Carl Grose‘s script has reached into a bag of tricks in which legendary British director Peter Brooks’ warnings of sliding into “the scene between the scenes” become oddly central. Whilst intellectually gratifying to be reminded of the theoretical dynamics of direction and the critical mechanics of acting, I did slightly wonder if “Oops your dramaturgy is showing”? Was this a darling that should have been sacrificed on the Dionysian altar?
In the cold light of the day after the show, I find myself determining that Spymonkey don’t do a great job of locating and amplifying the essence of Aristophanes’ masterpiece – in part because they seem afraid of playing it straight (straightly funny that is) without lots of curlicues of interpretation for fear the audience won’t get it.
Nonetheless, I had a good time that evening amongst the bonkers set of sketches they did assemble – as they note: with great apology to Aristophanes. I liked all three of the performers’ screwball energy. I enjoyed the meta-theatrical gags about a revolving stage and platform shoes. And yes, I was perfectly content with the dick jokes that have been comedic stock-in-trade since 405 BCE.
The cast of two of the original Spymonkey principals, Aitor Basauri and Toby Park, alongside Jacoba Williams, chewed their way pleasingly through the mayhem. The design by Lucy Bradridge was clever and comically relentless. I am less convinced by Grose and team’s script which lacked a compelling internal logic nor Joyce Henderson’s direction which also didn’t seem to find the essence either – despite a very visually appealing and playful staging of the theatrical business itself.
I do not urge everyone to run to the theatre to see this show but I also won’t advise against it. There is still something joyously goofy in it that will make you curious about comedy itself – even if the apology to Aristophanes also needs to be extended on his behalf.
Review by Mary Beer
Toby Park and Aitor Basauri are at the end of the road. The other Spymonkeys have taken themselves off to a better place, and they’re about to call it a day. But when a mega-rich philanthropist and her theatrically inclined niece make them an offer they can’t refuse, this comedy duo are given one last chance. Do they have what it takes to perform the classic Greek comedy The Frogs? With golden-age glamour, modern-day angst and a jumping chorus of tap-dancing frogs, this is Aristophanes performed like you’ve never seen it before.
Spymonkey, Kiln Theatre and Royal & Derngate present