STAG’s main-stage production retells the ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata in a 1920s New York speakeasy setting. The primary gist of the play remains the same, with the female characters going on a sex-strike in protest of the violence carried out by the men. The Peloponnesian War is swapped for prohibition smuggling conflicts, and the stronghold of the Acropolis is now the booze/weapon storage of the club in which the play takes place. The directors Charlotte Smith and Katy Green did, however, transform the play’s ending from a reconciliation with the men to a more female-centred resolution. In the end, the play was about more than just peace: a consolidation of female unity with some Marxist cooperative undertones, a splendid rejection of control in so many forms.
Smith and Green’s retelling really glowed when it captured the essence of both its source material and genre. Their Lysistrata had all of the timeless meaning of the Greek classic, with the added watch-ability and fireworks of the Jazz Age. I left feeling both educated and entertained by their magnificent blending. A commendable directing choice was the essential humanity of all the characters. We got some level of likeability and understanding from each throughout. Especially in the gangster genre there are too many one-dimensional characters made to be hated, usually as fodder for enjoyable death scenes later, leaving us with a simplistic narrative not like any real societal change. When we can see the multifarious rocks and hard places of each character’s decisions it makes the push and pull of ideas more tangible and engaging. Smith and Green’s Lysistrata gets so much right in this regard. In a fundamentally feminist play the women undoubtedly champion morality but it’s a battle they fight out of love, not hate or righteousness. The men are not just depicted as brutish enemies of their cause, but victims of the same war, who need the show of heart and truth the women exhibit. This makes the resolution so much more meaningful than the victory of one side over another. However, more could have been done to represent this battle of ideas had the resistance to the strike seemed more ideological. Even pointless wars are held together by lofty ideals and bitter grievances. The seemingly unanimous agreement by the men that everything about the violence was unnecessary made the resolution seem inevitable, and therefore less impactful than it could have been.
On top of a superb rewriting, the execution by cast and crew justified Lysistrata’s sold-out run. The staging was close and intimate, meaning every millimetre of movement or expression by performers was visible, but damn did they use this to their advantage. The cast built the atmosphere I was hoping for, with dance numbers, action scenes, and shockingly impressive New York accents. Bugsy Malone himself would’ve been proud! If I had to provide some criticism, it would be that energy did seem to be a problem at times, with some scenes feeling a little staccato and stationary. Often one character would speak while others simply listened without much dynamism, and the intervals of dialogue seemed unnaturally wide with little energetic overlap. But this is a common problem, especially on middle nights – on which I reviewed the play. I’m happy to report however that in the second half it picked up significantly: the stage exploded with life, at times with a hundred different things happening secondary to the main speaker, exactly how a play of this jazz genre should be.
The eponymous lead was played gracefully by Cara Stewart; she achieved the sense of gravitas and presence required for her character to command an often unspoken reverence from others. The surprising final sacrifice of Lysistrata was made all the more visceral by the love and care she demonstrated throughout the play for the women under her responsibility. The ying to Stewart’s yang was undertaken by Daniel Cawley as Clint, and I don’t think he could have created the balance better. All the plotting, thriftiness and sleaze was there to make his character symbolic of a beloved genre. When the strike starts to take its toll the snap of character Cawley shows at points is terrifying, a skilful effect to harness in such a comedic play.
The whole cast impressed me with their mastery of the genre but two performances in particular definitely ignited the play’s energy whenever it wavered. I speak for the whole audience when I say Molly Thompson as Calondice grabbed our amazement constantly, with a robust and joyful performance. It really seemed like she enjoyed every second of the performance, shining as a comedic and deeply human personality in so many scenes. Similarly Christopher Scanlan as Mr Spartan and a gangster engaged me in such a uniquely watchable portrayal I often lost myself in the era. Every twitch of the eyebrow and wisecrack had us in stitches. The whole cast’s performance really added enjoyment to our education and for that we have to thank them all, as well as the directors and the crew.