Five Student Reviews of the Cambridge Greek Play 1995

Aristophanes' Birds
In the Original Greek
Directed by Dictynna Hood

Cambridge Corn Exchange Theatre
23 February, 1995

[Editor's note: No two members of an audience have exactly the same response to a production, as these four reviews will demonstrate.]

When going to an opera performed in a foreign tongue, it is wise to familiarise yourself with the plot beforehand. If the same precautions are taken with a Greek comedy and a synopsis is placed in your hand by a friendly usher when you enter, you can watch the whole performance and almost forget that you don't understand a word of it.

The enjoyment of the play then depends on the acting, music, costumes, and production. Of the actors, Khevyn Raj Limbajee, first seen as Euelpides, was outstanding in his variety of roles and Edward J. Black was a convincing Hoopoe, if a slightly wimpish Poseidon. The chorus was superb, rivalling Limbajee as stars of the show. Birds they were meant to be and birds they most certainly were, more remarkably so as they wore only token feathers and used no masks. I had to control an urge to throw some bread out to them.

There was no scenery to speak of, but we were transported from rocks to clouds to 'Cloudcuckooland' and the entertainment never stopped. Excellent use was made of the stage, and the production team, most notably director Dictynna Hood and movement director Christian Darley, deserves recognition for this. The music, composed by Andrew Lovett, was effective and exactly what I expected from a Cambridge production.

The assault on Iris was intensely amusing, so anyone who left at the interval missed the funniest part of the comedy. The deputation of the three gods, however, was the worst part of the production. The three are meant to be the heavy mob of Olympus and the humor should come from the interactions between them. This proved to be impossible to convey in the contraption in which they were confined. Was Hercules hungry? I couldn't tell from his actions. Was the Triballian speaking in a barbaric way? Who could tell when the Greek was just as incomprehensible?

The finale, too, lacked something. Peisetairos, played dimly by Jon Skeet, appeared to marry the most desirable piece of wood on the planet, which was supposed to represent Basileia in some way. I freely admit that if this was a clever metaphor I still cannot understand it and it seemed a pity to end the play in such an uninspiring way.

To a student of Aristophanes the production serves to illustrate the necessity of good stage direction and an understanding of what a comedy should achieve.I feel that you will be hard pushed to find a better production by amateurs anywhere.

Philip Bathe, second-year Classics student

The matinee production of Birds on 23 February 1995 was greeted by a full and enthusiastic house. Unfortunately this reviewer's enjoyment of the play was slightly coloured by the fact that from her seat in the back row she was unable to see any action which took place below the actors' waist level. Furthermore the draperies hanging from the ceiling made it difficult to see anything which took place on the balcony. Nevertheless I did enjoy the experience but found the performance a little long.

I felt the choreography was excellently handled and every member of the chorus created an excellent impersonation of a bird, each adding his or her own individuality to the part. Good as they were, however, they were not good enough to cancel out my disappointment that they were not equipped with bird masks, which I would have considered more necessary to this play than to most others.

The actors on the whole were very convincing; in particular Edward J. Black, whose most notable role was the Hoopoe, was very professional and carried off his several parts and their accompanying singing and dancing with great polish. Many of the jokes and innuendoes unfortunatly passed us by, being in Greek, but a little light relief was brought by the actor who took on the part of Iris (along with several other small parts) and played quite successfully for laughs. Jon Skeet was a little weak as Peisetairos: though able to portray the philanthropic leader in the first part of the play, he completely failed to convey the ruthlessness of the tyrant who emerges in the secnd part.

While I congratulate the actors, musicians, and chorus on their stamina and ability, I feel that in parts the production team failed miserably. Rigidly as they may have adhered to Aristophanes' script, I cannot applaud their decision to dispense with the masks which are so important to Greek theatre. I also felt that some parts of the action were played too straight and the opportunity for more recognisable comedy was missed. I am still strugglying to understand why Poseidon, Herakles, and the Triballian God were introduced as midgets riding on a pantomime horse.

Finally, my congratulations go to the young lady who spent three hours cooped up in a cage above the stage and did not fall asleep once!

Sheila Fowler, third-year Classics student

First impressions count and mine were mixed. The Prison Bird, admirably played by Elizabeth Marlowe, was the first thing to catch my attention, and throughout the play she remained a detailed study of a caged bird and served as a metaphor for the whole play. But the inadequacy of the seating arrangements in the Corn exchange, which resulted in approximately half the audience having an obstructed view of the stage, counteracted this positive impression. It appeared that the production team was trying to achieve the effect of theatre- in-the-round, but the venue was unsuitable for such an undertaking and the results were most unsatisfactory as for much of the play it was impossible to see what the actors were doing.

There were some outstanding performances in this production, as well ass some disappointments. Pesetairos (Jon Skeet) was one such disappointment. His voice had a nearly unvarying tone and rhythm, and rather than appearing to be a confident Persuader he seemed genuinely surprised by the events which unfolded during the course of the play. In contrast Khevyn Raj Limbajee (Euelpides and many others), gave an outstanding performance. It was not necessary to undrestand Greek to comprehend Euelpides since his varied tones and gestures conveyed changing moods and ideas quite well. Another actor worthy of high commendation is Edward J. Black. As the Hoopoe he conveyed the conscious gravity of a leader and concern for those he was leading. His song was one of the highlights of the play: Black's voice was powerful and perfectly suited to the music.

My response to the rest of the music was ambivalent. The musicians entered the orchestra 'nest', situated above the acting space, wearing different costumes and moving as birds. As they took their places each gave voice to a solo birdcall (one a duck). Since birds are natural musicians, this was an interesting and appropriate way to complete the atmosphere of the play. It is unfortunate that Andrew Lovett's composition was not always in keeping with the mood of the play. Despite scoring a huge success with the Hoopoe's song, he failed to live up to his promise. His music for the wedding of Peisetairos and Basileia would have been better suited to a funeral, though perhaps this was a conscious decision to underline the fact that although Peisetairos had triumphed the birds were worse off than at the beginning of the play.

It is impossible to discuss a production of Birds without mentioning the chorus. Christian Darley, the movement director, succeeded in ensuring that the chorus maintained characteristically birdlike movements throughout the performance. In itself this is an achievement, but I was disappointed in the lack of differentiation among members of the chorus. Try as I might I could not distinguish the owl from the head chicken. The lack of differentiation was compounded by a startling lack of imagination on the part of the costume department. The only bird who wore a costume which distinguished her from the others was the Nightingale, whose brown skirt, red top, and feather boa would have been more suited to a robin.

I presume that the Balcony Birds were intended as an extension of the chorus. They wore masks complete with beaks and looked most impressive--but they failed to do anything other than fidget.

Another area in which the director's imagination failed to realise its intent was the portrayal of the ambassadors from Olympus. Having Heracles, Poseidon, and the Triballian God dressed as so many Humpty Dumpties on a wall rendered their exchange with Peisetairos ludicrous. It is impossible to imagine anyone being cowed by a deputation in which Heracles carried a club hardly bigger than a chicken bone. The whole scene simply failed to reach its comic potential.

Not all such flights of fancy were doomed to failure, though. As I said before, the musicians and the Prison Bird were excellent, as was the representation of the birds carried by Peisetairos and Euelpides at the beginning of the play. Peisetairos' bird was represented by a handkerchief draped over the end of a walking stick; Euelpides' was a pair of bat wings protruding from a tiny toy pram. This enabled both actors to run around the stage looking as ridiculously funny as two men trying to follow a set of instructions from birds would do.

All in all the play did not live up to its billing as 'the theatrical firework of 1995' (Philip Howard, quoted on the cover of the programme), but it managed to avoid being a damp squib. Yet the negative outweighed the positive and I left feeling cheated out of what could have been, and should have been, an enjoyable afternoon.

Helen Wilding, second-year Law student

The Cambridge Greek Play Committee's Birds showed much talent and ability, but not used to its full potential. The actors themselves manipulated bird mannerisms very effectively in their warbling speech and bird-like movement. The live music and singing was well performed--Edward J. Black's Hoopoe was particularly strong in this area. The routines accompanying the the songs showed how much effort much have been involved in creating the successful synchronisation of their movements.

The use of percussion when humans or birds were being hit, providing the audience with the kind of clowning effect you would expect to hear in the circus, was entirely appropriate, as Aristophanes exploits this technique in many of his plays. In the same spirit audience participation was encouraged in the scene involving the city architect, who gave tape to people to hold while measuring the acting area. I particularly liked his costume because the set squares fastened to his hat made his character immediately identifiable.

On the other hand, I didn't think the costumes of the chorus were as effective as they might have been. It was difficult to work out which bird was which as many of the costumes were very similar. I was also disappointed that the birds wore no masks. Though masks impede facial expression, which is important in a play where the audience doesn't understand the language, the majority of the actors didn't use their faces effectively enough to compensate.

As for the Greek itself, it detracted from the enjoyment of watching the performance. It is true that there were occasional words in English but these were generally expletives and although they served to raise a laugh or two, they did not really help the audience to follow the action.

The scenery was fairly plain. White sheets draped across the ceiling to simulate clouds were a nice idea but proved a mistake because they obstructed the view of spectators in higher-level seats. The seating arrangement was unusual in that it violated the basic tenet that actors should never have their backs to the audience. With seats on either side of the stage there was always one half of the audience that couldn't see what was happening.

Despite this the protagonists carried out their task with relative ease. Much of the credit goes to Khevyn Raj Limbajee (Euelpides), who added much to the humour and drama of the play. He also took the roles of most of the visitors to Cloudcuckooland and carried them off effectively, proving very amusing. His representation of the goddess Iris was particularly memorable.

On the subject of gods, I thought the divine embassy rather insufficient: although the text offered much scope for humour it did not come across in this particular production. It is true that the gods are mocked in this play, but the Punch-and-Judy portrayal of the gods on a wall with large heads and bodies but puppet feet and legs took ridicule a little too far and made the scene more ridiculous than the characters.

On the other hand, I have nothing but admiration for the actress playing the caged bird, who had to sit in more or less the same position throughout the whole of the three hours. I thought she was a clever way of symbolising the perpetual imprisonment of the birds even after they have been 'set free' by Peisetairos, played by the rather mundane Jon Skeet.

I was surprised at the length of this play, especially as it was performed in an incomprehensible language. Quite a few people remarked that they had thought the interval was the end. Said interval was inserted an an unusually late stage of the play and I have to admit to being puzzled as to why the director and producer decided to split the play at this point.

On the whole, however, the production was a substantial if somewhat bizarre interpretation of Aristophanes' longest surviving play, and I would certainly not discourage anyone whose particular interest lies in Greek comedy from seeing it.

Sarah Yoxhall, second-year Classics student

This production of Aristophanes' Birds was admirably presented and fluently spoken (in Greek) by the Cambridge students. The versatile chorus of birds deserves particular mention for incorporating song, dance, acrobatics, and even a solo saxophonist. For the most part Dictynna Hood's production maintained a good pace, but I felt the first half was over-long, putting pressure on the chorus to hold the audience's interest. After the interval things livened up, although the ending was an anti-climax: there should have been more sense of wedding festivities.

From time to time the audience was startled into laughter by odd English interpolations. I thought this technique should have been used more extensively in order to clarify the plot. The good- humoured audience watched intently, but the performance raised too few laughs. There was slapstick in abundance, but this rarely comes off when done by actors used to straight roles. The cast did raise a good laugh by snatching the translation to which one audience member's eyes were glued and consulting it before giving it back.

The high point of the production was the brilliantly-executed Hoopoe's song. This was an impressively professional performance from Edward Black.Otherwise I found Andrew Lovett's music rather heavy-handed for this whimsical fantasy.

Jon Skeet's Peisetairos was not clearly-enough defined as a character. His transition to a position of absolute power after Euelpides' final exit was not projected strongly enough. But Khevyn Raj Limbajee made an energetic and optimistic Euelpides and thereafter turned up as several different characters, including the outrageously dressed Iris.

There was plenty of opportunity for doubling the smaller parts.We were treated to a vicious looking 'informer', complete with black mask, and three protesting gods confined within a Pantomime horse.

Lorna Marshall's costumes were really imaginative. The bird chorus included a girl in a wedding dress; others appeared to be straight out of a Brecht or Kafka play in smoking jackets or low-cut camisoles. Together they presented a dowdy, decadent appearance which illustrated the Hoopoe's remark that birds always moult in winter.

Christian Darley's choreography was appropriately birdlike in every detail: each bird had its individual characteristics, which were sustained throughout.

The production made imaginative use of the Cambridge Corn Exchange. An extra chorus of birds appeared on a balcony above the main acting area. A back projection, a hanging mobile bird, and the symbolic caged bird on the wall completed the setting.

A trememdous amount of work went into this production and the cast deserves credit for sustaining a high level of energy throughout.

Pamela Beesley, mature student

(All authors are undergraduates at the University of Warwick, England.)