Aristophanes' The Birds
Kirstenbosch Open-air Theatre
Cape Town, SA
December 2004 -January 2005

Reviewed by Betine Van Zyl Smit,
University of the Western Cape, Cape Town, SA

Aristophanes' The Birds was selected for performance at the third annual celebration of the Dionysos Festival at the Kirstenbosch Garden. In 2002 Euripides' Bacchae was produced and in 2003 Sophocles' Oedipus the Tyrant. This was therefore the first time a comedy was staged at this event. A further innovation was the decision to have performances only in the early morning, as in ancient Athens. This is in keeping with the general aim of the director of all three these productions, Roy Sargeant, to preserve the ancient Greek conventions as far as possible. Thus the cast was once again an all male one and the acting area, or stage, the circular space at the foot of the semicircular stone amphitheatre on the back slopes of Table Mountain in the beautiful gardens. The actors sometimes entered from the wings, but more often could be seen approaching through the garden. This setting worked very well as a backdrop to The Birds and the presence of real birds in the background and even amongst the actors was an unexpected enhancement. A blue and white cloth covered the circular orchestra floor suggesting the sky with some loose clouds. The programme note stated: 'The action of the play takes place high up in the mountains amongst the tallest trees, in the clouds and in the sky...' and the location perfectly illustrated this.

Comedy is notoriously more bound to time and place than tragedy. Producing a Greek comedy of the 5th century BC in twenty-first century South Africa was thus a challenge that required imaginative handling. Roy Sargeant succeeded in turning this challenge into an opportunity to delight Cape Town audiences with the charm and fun of his production. The fact that the play's run was extended by a week due to public demand proved not only that the audiences enjoyed the play, but also that they did not object to rising early to attend at 7h00!

A multifaceted strategy was adopted in order to overcome potential obstacles to the audience's understanding and consequent enjoyment of the play. The script used was Gilbert Murray's verse translation of The Birds, first published in 1950. However, according to the programme notes, "the naughty bits" had been brought back in. Further changes were made that improved the quality of the spoken text, e.g. the last phrase of Murray's version of the Hoopoe's recommendation of Peisetaerus:

He's a fox, the perfection of art,

All plan, trick, dodge, device and scheme, and purged in every part!

was changed so that "purged in every part" became the more elegant and witty "crème de la craft" . There were many further such changes for the better. The text was also pruned, probably in order to keep the playing time to a reasonable length (it ran for approximately 90 minutes). The excisions did not affect the action adversely. Further alterations to the text included updating some names and terms so that they would be familiar to a modern audience. A few examples should illustrate this: "fowlers" changed to "birdcatchers", "non-jurors" to "jurorphobes", "ten-thousand drachmae" to "ten G's", and the "Sovereign Bride" became the "Olympian Princess". Other internationally comprehensible modern references were introduced such as a "Walt Disney moment", "Prozac induced behaviour", "Pierre Cardin" and "Jamie Oliver". A clever adaptation to the context was the change of the prescription from a root to be gnawed "and your wings will grow" to the drinking of the energy drink "Red Bull" that has been widely advertised as giving one wings!

Sargeant introduced a device to clarify topical allusions which in a published translation would be explained in notes, for instance "owls to Athens". The Pelican repeatedly stepped up to the audience after such a phrase was uttered and said, "Let me explain that...". The end of the excursus was signalled by his asking "Got it?" This device risked irritating the audience but the danger was somewhat defused when the cast, later in the play, as the Pelican was offering yet another elucidation, turned on him and shouted, "Shut up! You piss me off!" This neatly anticipated the feeling of some of the audience!

The insertion of South African references and allusions also served to bring the play home to the audience. As Euelpides in the opening scene set out the goal of the two Athenians and their reasons for leaving Athens, Murray's translation sums up: "That's why we are starting on this long walk". By adding "to freedom", the statement was directly associated by the audience with the title of Nelson Mandela's autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. Thus the quest of the Athenians for a better world found an immediate local resonance. Further local colour was provided by the use of colloquial South African expressions, drawn from English, Afrikaans, or Xhosa and used in everyday speech. Terms like "bloody skelm (rogue)", "muggies" (gnats), "dop" (drink), "yebo baba" (yes old man), "What's up china?", "Ek sê" (I say) gave the dialogue a racy yet recognizably South African tone.

The general effect of the changes to the text was not only to update and add local elements to Murray's language, but to produce something more robust. For instance when Peisetaerus says of Iris, "Old as I am, I'm man enough for her." Sargeant's Peisetaerus is more direct: "I'll spread your legs and screw you." He adds that Viagra will help his performance! The instances of vulgarity and sexual innuendo of this version are not out of keeping with Aristophanes' original.

The Birds also had a strong visual appeal because of the inventive costumes, the bright hues of which were complemented by the natural light and colours of the setting. Peisetaerus and Euelpides initially wore half masks that left the lower halves of their faces open, thus allowing room for facial expression which is important in comedy. When they were transformed into birds, the whole of their faces was exposed, as with the rest of the cast of birds. The lavish plumage, crests and beaks surmounting the faces gave a convincing, yet festive, birdlike appearance to all the actors. After he was transformed into a bird, Peisetaerus sported a small moustache, reminiscent of Chaplin in The Great Dictator. The biggest visual surprise though, was the appearance of the Olympian Princess. To Peisetaerus' consternation she appeared in full dominatrix regalia brandishing a whip. She was given a shortened version of the last lines of dialogue (1755ff.) usually allocated to Peisetaerus. This unexpected twist to the marriage hinted at Peisetaerus' power in the new world being limited and controlled by his bride. In the programme notes Sargeant speculated that Aristophanes might have offered a subtle challenge to the paternalistic society of ancient Athens by describing the Olympian Princess as a kind of female party leader. The interpretation given in the performance certainly stretched the meaning of the Greek to the utmost.

The music also contributed to the fun and satire of the play. The instrumental music was prerecorded and consisted of a mix of tunes and styles ranging from Gilbert and Sullivan style operetta, through musicals, pop, rap and even the wedding march for the choral ode (1745 ff.) in praise of Zeus, the Olympian Princess and Peisetaerus. It was sung by the entire chorus and then the bride replied with the last lines of the play delivered in waltz tempo before the whole cast ended the show with a shout of "Hallelujah!"

The ensemble playing of the cast was excellent. The performance would however not have been as successful as it was without the inspired and inspirational Peisetaerus of Jeroen Kranenburg ably seconded by Nhlanhla Mavundla's Euelpides. Kranenburg not only handled his demanding role well but adlibbed to good and funny effect when a pair of Egyptian geese watching the performance threatened to drown out the actors' voices with their loud cackling! Many of the actors doubled roles to play the series of visitors to Cloudcuckooland such as the Poet, Meton, the Commissar, the Lawyer, Iris and the delegation of the gods.

It has often been said that The Birds is one of the least political of Aristophanes' comedies. It is rather a satire of human foibles, especially of the ridiculousness of the grandiose schemes of aspirants to power. This production conveyed the criticism but throughout preserved an admirable lightness of touch well suited to Aristophanes' captivating fantasy.

Betine van Zyl Smit
University of the Western Cape