If you haven’t already been to the Cambridge Greek Play – a double bill of Prometheus and The Frogs – or bought tickets for today’s or tomorrow’s performance, then before you read this review – STOP, and book your tickets now, because everyone ought to go to see this!
Done that? OK, you can read on now.*
I freely admit that I was mainly going to this for the second half. I didn’t know anything much about Prometheus before last week, when I sat down to skim-read it in preparation. Basically, it’s a play about a guy who gets chained to a rock, and then stays there; it makes any other Greek tragedy you care to name look like an action movie. So I wasn’t necessarily expecting to be enthralled by it — and just to prove me a complete Philistine, this turned out to be one of the best productions of a Greek tragedy I’ve ever seen. Henry Jenkinson gave an incredibly powerful performance as Prometheus, and there were some fantastic pieces of staging (credit to director Helen Eastman and designer Neil Irish) – the simple, bleak set of a ladder to represent Prometheus’ rock; Oceanus’ entrance, with the Chorus of Oceanids turning the stage into a sea; the scene in which Prometheus explains how he taught humans all their skills, illustrated by actors covering blackboards with writing, mathematical equations, scientific diagrams, and even some Linear B (for that alone this production gets five stars from me).
But the things that really made the play for me were the music and the Chorus. The latter is so often where productions of Greek tragedy fall down – reasonably enough, since it’s such a prominent part of the play, but the most difficult to pull off for a modern audience. But this Chorus (led by Katherine McDonald) did an extremely impressive job of making what I’m assured was some very difficult choreography look effortless, moving seamlessly between singing, chanting, and speaking, as a group or individually. The decision to sing the lyrics and some of the dialogue (to an original score, specially composed by Alex Silverman) was a brilliant one, giving an effect that was probably as close to the original sung lyrics as we can get, and yet highly effective on its own terms – it never felt like something done purely for the sake of “authenticity”. If I’ve got one complaint, it was that the music sometimes drowned out the actors, particularly in the dramatic opening scene – I may, like the majority of the audience, have been totally reliant on the surtitles to follow what was being said, but I still wanted to hear the Greek. Frankly, though, I’m going to be extremely disappointed in any future production of a tragedy I see that doesn’t have a Chorus and a musical setting like this one.
As for The Frogs – well, I don’t want to go into details, for fear of spoiling the jokes (and yes, even if you know the play off by heart, there are still plenty of potential spoilers). Suffice to say that this was an extremely clever and very funny adaptation that brought Aristophanes right up-to-date while staying true to the spirit (though, for obvious reasons, not exactly the letter) of the original, with an all-singing, all-dancing cast, even including a trapeze artist – oh, and the surtitles really came into their own here. I also liked the visual and verbal links that the early scenes made with Prometheus, nicely tying the two plays together. Of course, the Frog Chorus was the highlight of the show; I defy anyone not to walk home singing “Brekekekex koax koax” at the top of their voice. And if you didn’t take my word for it before and book your tickets, I hope you will now, because I really can’t recommend this production highly enough!
*If you’re not actually in Cambridge, or are reading this in several weeks’ time, don’t despair – I’m promised that a DVD will be coming out at some point…