Oliver Whiskard sees if an ancient Greek comedy can be brought back to life
Menander’s Dyskolos (The Grouch), originally performed in 316 BC, is the story of Knemon, the grouchy old man of the title, who lives alone with his daughter on a farm. A wealthy city boy from Athens, Sostratos, falls in love with his daughter at first sight and then pretends to be a hardworking farmer to hopefully win over the grouch and his daughter’s hand in marriage. The play is an example of ancient Greek ‘New’ Comedy, which is typically characterised by a move away from contemporary Athenian social and political issues, and the lampooning of prominent politicians and intellectuals associated with the ‘Old’ comedies of Aristophanes, for example. Rather, the plays focus on ordinary men and women in stereotypical roles, and bourgeois issues such as love, marriage and money.
I can see how Dyskolos might therefore be a good choice for introducing an uninformed audience to ancient theatre, because like the genre of ‘New’ Comedy that it belongs to, the world that it presents avoids any egregious anachronism that would make it too inaccessible. The world is presented as a universal one, where the various issues of the play still resonate in contemporary society, and are explored with fantasy and frivolity. The director, Hippolyte Broud, very effectively created the fantastical and frivolous atmosphere. This was mainly due to the flutist on stage who eased scene transitions with mellifluous and magical sound; the colourful lighting and costumes also added to the total effect. The flutist was ever-present in the background and even provided one of the biggest laughs, when Knemon, in a meta-dramatic remark, told her to shut up. In fact, as a whole, the biggest laughs ironically came when the actors stepped outside the world of the play and were self-referential: for example, in order to get around a mutilated and disputed passage in the ancient Greek source material, the narrator and slave, Gorgias, simply broke the fourth wall and explained it in a humorous aside to the audience. I also enjoyed the way the actors used the whole space of the auditorium, literally stepping out of the play, and sometimes directing their lines to members of the audience. The action would have been very dull if it were not for these redeeming qualities.
As far as I can see, there are two possible directions to pursue when adapting an ancient play for a modern audience. The choice of play and the way that it is directed can be very anachronistic, preserving the original down to every last detail, essentially trying to present it in a way that ancient audiences would have seen it. Although, as some would argue, these are more inaccessible, they hold interest precisely because the audience has a slice of history, and can access a different time in its purest form. Dyskolos seems to avoid this direction, being accessible precisely because it is ‘New’ Roman comedy, which has simplistic, universal themes, and little that would stump a modern audience. The production itself is pared down, and the translation sounded to me as if it used simplified English (although this could be because of improvisation). However, when you are not going to attempt to appeal to the audience’s historical curiosity, their curiosity must be engaged in other ways, and I think this is where Dyskolos ultimately falls down. The text itself cannot engender this curiosity, so the production has to rescue it with the comedic mannerisms of the performers. We want actors to tease out the comedic opportunities embedded in a source text, which, if plainly read, would not produce a single titter.
The actors of this production simply did not have enough experience to make the text very funny. In particular, the performance of Sostratos, although good at points, was strained with over-the-top mannerisms, trying too hard to get a laugh through every line and expression. This problem was not unique to Sostratos, as much of the play was watched in silence when what was happening on stage was clearly meant to make the audience laugh. Other performances were not exaggerated, but simply amateurish. Having said this, the central performance of Knemon was great and so were the Cook and Gorgias, who provided enthusiastic narration throughout.
An ancient Greek comedy was always going to be difficult to sell to a modern audience, and unfortunately, I don’t think this production of Dyskolos transformed the text into anything that could find a way through my modern day conception of entertaining drama. I admire the UCL Classical Drama Society’s ambition in choosing an ancient comedy, but it is one of those genres where strong professional performances are particularly important. If it weren’t for the hilarious antics of the sheep, who made various interjections of ‘baa’, I would have lost interest entirely. It is particularly telling that the sheep got the loudest applause at the end.
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Featured Image Credits: William Hobbs