Aristophanes' Frogs
Adapted from David Barrett's Penguin Classics translation
Directed by Marlene Blom and Caroline Calburn
Lighting design by Patrick Curtis
Performed by the BA Drama students, UCT Drama Department

13-21 May 1994

The Little Theatre's Hiddingh Hall
Hiddingh Campus
University of Cape Town

Reviewed by Margaret Mezzabotta

Directed and choreographed by two members of the lecturing staff of the Drama Department, this production was conceived as a learning exercise in performance, design and stage management for an enthusiastic cast of twelve BA Drama students (ten females and two males) and a behind-the-scenes team of classmates. It should be noted that these students were not drawn from those enrolled in the highly selective Performers' Diploma in Speech and Drama programme, which leads to a professional qualification, but from ordinary students taking a course in drama as part of a BA degree, not necessarily with drama-oriented careers in mind. The majority were first-years, introduced to the formal study of drama not quite three months previously (the South African academic year commences only at the end of February) and many were participating as performers for the first time in their lives. Because of their inexperience, the players were at times unequal to the vocal and technical demands made of them. While the choice of Frogs might be seen as over-ambitious for a novice cast, their undoubted achievements can more fairly be measured by the ways they addressed the challenge of reinterpreting an ancient art form encumbered by alien cultural baggage for the entertainment of an unschooled modern audience.

The initial problem of how to ensure that the audience was sufficiently informed of the political context of 405 BC to understand the play was solved by including a lengthy background note, culled from Barrett's introduction, in the programme. The names of key contemporary figures (e.g. Archedemus, Phrynichus, Theramenes, Alcibiades) were printed in capitals for additional emphasis.

Temporary stands erected in the University's Hiddingh Hall provided tiered seating for sixty spectators. This venue offers three acting levels, the possibilities of which were intelligently exploited by the players. The lowest level, the floor area directly in front of the audience, functioned as a kind of orchestra. The early scenes were played here, including the antics of the frogs and the dancing of the initiates. (Yes! the eponymous amphibians were visible in this production. For the most recent discussion regarding the visibility of the frog chorus in the original performance, see K.J. Dover, ed., Aristophanes, Frogs (Oxford, 1993), pp. 55-57.). A bundle of sticks resembling driftwood branches, centrally positioned at the back of the orchestra, drew the eye and suggested a marsh setting. The house of Heracles and Pluto's palace were located on a conventional raised stage, to which two sets of side steps provided access. The fronts of these stage houses were constructed from screens covered with black plastic sheeting, also used to drape the back walls of the stage area. After the intermission, the audience returned to find that the seating had been pushed forward, thereby considerably reducing the size of the orchestra, which was hardly used from then on, and focusing attention on the stage, which became the principal acting space for the second half of the play. The Hiddingh Hall's minstrels' gallery, similarly hung with black plastic, was utilised as a third, elevated acting level, from which Pluto pressed Dionysus to make his decision. The use of these three levels added interest and variety to the performance. As for the sticks and the plastic, it soon became evident that these materials were intended to provide thematic links between the disparate parts of the play.

Dionysus and his slave Xanthias were played throughout by Annika Larsen and Amrain Ismail, both of whom had a strong stage presence. The other ten performers constituted the chorus but each played at least one of the remaining speaking parts (e.g. Heracles, Charon, Aeacus, the landlady, etc.). Since the whole cast entered together, the chorus players were present right from the beginning, providing a stage audience for the exchanges of dialogue involving Xanthias, Dionysus and Heracles and then acting as corpses and corpse bearers, frogs and underworld monsters before reassembling formally as the chorus of initiates. They interacted well, smoothly assuming and relinquishing their individual roles and reabsorbing themselves seamlessly into the texture of the group. But some disconcerting arrangements regarding role allocation had been made, in that the part of Heracles was played by three performers (their heads popping out of Heracles' door in rapid succession to speak his lines) and that of Pluto by two. I wondered whether the triple incarnation of Heracles was an allusion to the three heads of Cerberus, but later enquiry revealed that it had been intended to convey Heracles' more- than-human, godlike power to multiply himself if he so wished. But besides being at odds with the mythological tradition associated with Heracles, this interpretation was lost on the audience, who were plainly puzzled by the epiphany of Heracles in triplicate. A cardinal rule had been forgotten: don't confuse the audience.

As the company romped into the orchestra to the cheerful strains of music by Mikis Theodorakis, their outfits of oversized black T-shirts buttoned to dark grey baggy pants created the impression of a troupe of clowns. The uniformity of their costume served to neutralise their gender, so that the impersonation of male characters by female performers had no jarring effect. Dionysus and Xanthias were distinguished from the others by their headgear, with Dionysus sporting a curious helmet-like head- covering made of sticks, in contrast with Xanthias' black felt bell- shaped cap. The rest, each carrying a stick which could be transformed into oar, staff, weapon, or whatever other prop was required, were made up with frog-green face paint, suggesting masks. Xanthias entered riding a human donkey which was encouraged by a carrot suspended from a string and rod. His luggage, which is the comic target of the play's opening lines, consisted of a cumbersome load of sticks and a white plastic television set, an object which struck a suitably incongruous note in preparation for the action to follow.

Skilfully subdued lighting helped effect the transition from Heracles' house to the gloomy environs of Hades. Choral singing of Gregorian chant accompanied the procession of corpses. Dionysus mime- rowed his way across the infernal waters, ringed by circling, hopping, rapping frogs, who delivered their lines in unison and with a well-controlled gradual increase in volume. Once Dionysus had landed, the chorus players transformed themselves into grotesque shapes of underworld monsters, writhing in the dimly flickering lighting and striking terror into the cowardly god. Finally metamorphosed into initiates they gambolled joyfully, alternating sung delivery of their stanzas (to the tunes of various nursery rhymes) with crisp, rhythmic chanting.

Whereas the references to Aristophanes' contemporaries were retained in the dialogue scenes, some clever updating for South African spectators had been introduced into the separate choral sections, particularly in the parabasis. The names of Cleisthenes, Archedemus, Phrynichus and Cleigenes were replaced (not always by wholly appropriate analogues, but ten out of ten for effort and ingenuity) by those of Terre'blanche (leader of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, a group of White rightwing extremists), Rajbansi (slippery Indian politician), Verwoerd (promulgator of apartheid, assassinated in 1966) and Mangope (Black puppet leader of the former homeland of Bophuthatswana, who refused to participate in the recent South African elections). The resonance of these references helped to transmit something of the political flavour of Aristophanic comedy. Certainly, the chorus leader's impassioned appeal for constructive engagement by all Athenians recalled President Nelson Mandela's stirring inauguration speech, delivered only three days before the production opened, urging reconciliation and nation- building.

The dynamics of the interaction between Dionysus and Xanthias gave coherence to the first half of the play. Their master-servant relationship was recast in terms of the South African comic stereotype, with baas being substituted for guvnor, the British- style locution of Barrett's translation. Dionysus' blustering bravado, Xanthias' resilience and the slapstick of the whipping scene were all well received by the audience.

The debate between Euripides (Bianca Resnekov) and Aeschylus (Adam Pike), each wearing a red plastic clown's nose and armed with a green plastic water pistol, enlivened the second half. The dramaturgical opposition of the two characters (or caricatures) was visually expressed by the differing physical appearance and movements of their actors. The diminutive stature of the Euripides player (emphasised by the horizontal stripes on the tragedian's voluminous pantaloons) functioned as a visual pointer to his eventual defeat, while the performer dodged and darted about the stage in a manner suggestive of Euripides' boundless energy and fertile creativity. In contrast, the extreme height of the Aeschylus actor (exaggerated by his vertically- striped pants), coupled with his slow movements, accentuated the dignified disdain with which he reacted to his younger rival's challenge. At the end of the agon plastic dustpans were employed for weighing the poetry, a minuscule purple pan for Euripides' lines but a massive orange utensil for Aeschylus' weightier verses. The chorus kept their backs turned to the audience but wore plastic party masks of human faces on the back of their heads, a clever concept (reminiscent of Meryl Streep's head-turning trick in Death Becomes Her) which underlined the fundamental absurdity of the comic scene being enacted.

The production was flawed by poor audibility, the responsibility for which lay as much with the echoing acoustics of the venue as with the underdeveloped vocal techniques of the performers. The visual aspects were far more successful. The second half, especially, was marked by some enterprising visual jokes and entertaining stage business, but an obvious opportunity for visual humour was missed at the beginning of the play. Dionysus had been issued with neither yellow robe nor lion skin nor buskins nor club, even though these items were specifically mentioned by Heracles. The omission made Heracles' laughter at the sight of Dionysus difficult to account for and made little sense of his lines. Either these props should have been provided, or references to them cut. On the credit side, however, the performance was characterised by excellent teamwork, imaginative choreography, a fast-moving pace and effective visual images.

At the end of Frogs, Aeschylus is the poet selected by Dionysus to give sound advice to the Athenians; but for the run of the Cape Town production, it was Aristophanes himself who was brought back from the dead, to remind a modern audience not to exclude the poets as a source of political wisdom for their newly- established democracy.


Margaret Mezzabotta - 1946-2000.
Margaret was a Senior Lecturer in Classics at the University of Cape Town.