Theatre with Felix, or, How Not To Do It

derby_playhouseI really must have a good rant about The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug at some point, if only to make lots of points about dragons in fantasy and rabbit on and on about Smaug. But since I just saw my first ever ancient Greek musical, for today I’ll rant about what it’s like to go to the theatre when you’re me.

Now to begin with let me just say I definitely didn’t know there was a musical adaptation of Aristophanes’ The Frogs before last night. So when it popped up on localsecrets.com while I was browsing for a way to end the pain and loneliness of my imminent Saturday night, I was instantly intrigued. This sounds awesome, I thought: worthy, educational Cultural Content, performed in a wacky modern stylee. Then I looked at the details of the production: it’s not even some cracked-out student-written bit of nonsense, it’s actually an adaptation by Stephen Sondheim. Sold: one seat in row M, to the short gentleman with the suspect taste in jumpers. I’d always avoided Greek plays when I was a Cambridge student, in the certain knowledge that they’d be traditionally performed by people who really knew what they were on about and would, therefore, be completely incomprehensible. I believe in a couple of cases they even do them in the original ancient Greek.

And so, in joyous contempt of the excruciating vet bill one of my rats incurred this morning, off I trotted to the local ex-poly to experience the phenomenon that was an ancient Greek modern musical.

Frogs_smallAt this point I’ll digress and tell you a little about my family background. My grandmother was a redoubtable woman who was involved in amateur drama all her life; she directed for the local players for decades, and made it into the local paper aged eighty-something for breaking her leg on her icy front steps on her way out to prompt for their pantomime performance. I was something of a favourite among the grandchildren, inheriting as I did her flair for the dramatic. Gran was also one of those wonderful people who talked very posh on the phone, but was much more obviously from Lancashire when it was just the family. She had discerning taste in theatre, by which I mean she was an incorrigible snob and would roll her eyes at the well-meaning efforts of amateur actors even while they and the entire rest of the audience were obviously having a great time. I think her concept of theatre is best expressed by a memory I have of her aged 93, mere days before she passed away. I’d been to visit her at the nursing home and stayed on for a bit to enjoy a bit of Christmas cheer courtesy of a couple of generous locals. It was all delightfully cheesy; husband was in his santa outfit with a guitar, fadingly pretty wife wore a charity shop sequin dress that was missing a few of its sequins. There was a Christmas tree, a bit of green fake fur fabric and some “presents”, and a birthdays’n’weddings PA system to sputter out vintage tunes and a carol here and there. The assistants, exactly the kind of comfortable Midlands women in pinnies that I remember as the dinner-ladies of my youth, piloted an industrial-quality tea trolley on its stately way around the room and wheeled in those of the oldies who couldn’t make the lounge by themselves. One dear old chap at the end of the row of fogeys clearly hadn’t got a marble left in his head, but he gave an enormous gummy grin and clapped like a sea-lion every time Wifey came near him – she hadn’t lost her figure completely, after all. She noticed her fan and commented as much, then for the rest of the performance sang a line to him every now and then. It was heart-warming to see.

Gran’s only comment on the whole event was to turn to me in the middle of the set and roll her eyes. It was a look of shared adversity; a face that said oh dear lord, isn’t it awful? It’s so nice to be with someone who understands.

I could only smile and shrug. I loved her to bits, my Grandma, but she didn’t half know how to pick fault.

aristophanesBSo that’s the world I come from, then. Which means that being the adult version of me is somewhat self-satirising at times. Specifically, every single time I go to the theatre, that part of me that loves nothing more than to suspend disbelief from the highest point in the area and fling all critical faculties to the winds is perpetually in an argument with the voice in the back of my head which began its life as Gran.

It started as soon as I walked into the theatre. Ooooh, said my inner child – it’s all Seventies! Classy seventies, mind you, exposed patterned brickwork in that lovely gentle brown – with suitably modern lighting riggage plastered over the top. The space felt comfortable to me, almost homely. I took photos of the brickwork on my phone. People looked at me strangely.

The lights went down and on poured the cast, and at that point up spoke Grandma. The rest of the evening sounded, inside my head, something like “FOR FUCK’S SAKE, I can see you right there on the sound desk, you’re like six feet away from me, TURN THE CHORUS’S MICROPHONES DOWN. And someone put a towel inside that bloody kick drum. Oh, for – did the director not tell anyone that turning your back to the audience is a BAD IDEA? More to the point has any single person in this damn show got any talent? No? Oh, I see, you worked with the resources you’ve got. You’ve put all the ones who can act in the character parts. For your information, Director, Dionysus is not a part suited to a skinny teenager with a slightly uptight manner, and Heracles is an ARCHETYPAL HERO, NOT A FIVE FOOT NOTHING BLACK GIRL. Even if she is the best actor I’ve seen in this damn piece. Oh look it’s the interval.”

My inner child got a look-in when Hades pranced on in a spangly jacket, camped it further up than Christmas and proceeded to sing (almost audibly) about how awesome it was to party all eternity in Hell. Same guy looked a treat in a drag outfit and really should have been Dionysus, for my money. But we don’t cast fat boys as the lead, now do we, girls *sigh*. I loved the moments with Dionysus’s dead wife – a very quiet and subtle but absolutely captivating performer – and I wanted the finale, involving a potentially hilarious slanging match between George Bernard Shaw and Shakespeare, to be much much slicker and more watchable. Charon and the zombie stoner boat crew also deserve a mention.

Oh while we’re at it? SHAKESPEARE. SPEAK UP.

frogumbrella_cropSo in short, it was everything you’d expect from a student production at a third-rate ex-polytechnic – good fun, low budget, pretty rough around the edges, but since the audience is mostly your mates and your family, I mean who really gives a fuck in the end?

Well, maybe that one guy in the dodgy jumper in row M does. Who is experiencing for the first time a piece of culture that’s been transmitted down through literally thousands of years and is amazed that it’s still just as full of passion, relevance and meaning as it was in Athens’ heyday. Maybe, for all you guys are not the world’s best actors and for all your lone unrelated spectator is stuck in an argument with the voice of his departed gran, Aristophanes’s work actually still manages to achieve the purpose all drama (hell, all writing) fundamentally has – to reach the audience and make them think.

Maybe it’s pretty fucking impressive that human creativity can be so eternal. And maybe, just maybe, that one guy in row M in that one very dodgy jumper is actually pretty into this. Maybe he even gets a little shiver up his spine when, as Dionysus departs from Hades, you sing for him a soft refrain in the timeless, alien words of ancient Greece.

Emöe, alalai, alalai…

I laughed at myself for being down to earth enough to tell the theatre staff during the interval that someone had been sick in one of the toilets, and even more so for unconsciously sounding far more Midlands than usual when I did it. But then even that’s about communicating, with me; about getting across my point that I’m ordinary and want to help, not some snotty toff who’s just complaining. Even that is using exactly the same insight that characterises Aristophanes’ whole play. It’s not just what you say – it’s how you say it. There’s a right way to say certain things at certain times.

Language. There’s really nothing like it.

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