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Saturday, 15 February 2014

The Wasp Woman

It's not often you have a chance to get back to your roots. I mean really deep down, back to Africa type roots.

Yesterday that happened. It wasn't a trip to a long lost aunt, or a family vault in a deserted churchyard. It wasn't a pile of crumbling  papers discovered in an OXO tin in the loft of the house of recently deceased relative. It was in an theatre not far from London Bridge.

I'm sure I've mentioned in the past that I am of part Greek decent (sort of light Feta). My father's family came from Kephalonia having made their way down the Dalmatian coast from Venice in the 15th century or there abouts.

The thing is that none of us modern Greeks are in anyway descendants of the Greeks of antiquity. Mostly we're migrants or invaders from the north and east; but we see ourselves as inheriting the mantle of Odysseus and Homer. The Athens of Pericles, the oracle at Delphi, the battle at Marathon, all this is the substrata of modern Greece. And why not? A magical race, a loose knit, warring federation of city states. Misogynistic, democratic, creative, brutal, the ancient Greeks were nothing if not astounding.

Anyone with any sense would claim descent.

I  neither read nor speak modern Greek and most certainly not classical Greek. However, my old college's Classics department  invited me to a performance of Aristophanes "The Wasps". The play  to be performed by undergraduates in the original Greek.

I quickly read up on old Aristo and his plays. Quite a guy with a wicked sense of humour and a penchant for twisting the tail of the high and mighty in 5th century BC Athens.

The anti-hero is an old man, Philocleon, who is addicted to sitting on juries. There's little love of justice in this, he just likes finding people guilty and fining them or sending them to jail. His son Bdelycleon is keen to stop him, and so addicted is his father that the house is draped with a net and every hole  and crack  in the house sealed up to prevent dad sneaking off.  He's guarded by two of his son's servants - a rather slow and sleepy couple who are the butt of some humour.

Dad's mates, a collection of fellow jurors (the Chorus), are wasps with stings where their pricks should be. They're old and doddery and they arrive at the crack of dawn to take Philocleon off with them to the courts for the day's judging, but he's not to be seen. Eventually Philocleon makes an appearance, explains that he's being held captive by his son and asks his friends' help to escape. However, his son is alive to this and a fight breaks out with his son winning with the judicial use of some fly spray.  It's agreed that rather than fighting the two sides should debate the issue.

During the debate it is clear that Philocleon is addicted to the flattery and attention he receives from the rich and famous who bribe him to return a favourable verdict. The pay he receives as jurist gives him independence and authority in his own household. Bdelycleon points out that rather than being important and respected  his dad is subject to the demands of petty officials and actually gets paid less than he deserves. Bdelycleon wins the argument, both Philocleon and the Chorus are won over, but dad is not yet able to fully give up his addiction.

Bdelycleon  then suggests turning the house into a  courtroom and to pay his dad a juror's fee to judge domestic disputes. Philocleon agrees and the first case brought before him is a dispute between the household dogs Demadogue and Labes involving the unlawful theft of a Sicilian cheese. Dad is sure who's guilty before any evidence is presented. The son tries to pull at his dad's heart strings by calling Labes puppies as witnesses but dad holds fast to his conviction. However, the son easily fools the father to acquit the dog. Philocleon is shocked by this, but the son promises his dad a good time. The Chorus sings a lament of lost youth and vigour.

In the next scene dad and son are arguing about the clothes the old man should wear to a sophisticated dinner he's to attend. Dad loves his old juryman's cloak and is suspicious of the smart togs his son wants him to wear. In the end dad changes into the fashionable clothes and his son instructs him on how to behave and converse at the dinner. Philocleon says he's not going to drink any wine not wishing to  risk showing himself up in sophisticated company. His son reassures him that he won't do that.

However, we learn that the dad has disgraced himself at the dinner party. He got abusively drunk, insulted all his son's fashionable friends and is on his way home assaulting everyone he meets on the way. He's also kidnapped the pretty  (naked) flute girl from the party. His son arrives and berates his father for his behaviour. At the same time the people he's assaulted on his way home arrive with witnesses and threaten legal action against Philocleon. The old man's attempts to talk his way out of trouble further inflames the situation and in desperation the son drags his dad indoors. The chorus sings about how difficult it is for men to change their habits and commend the son for his filial devotion. The play ends with the whole cast on stage for a good ol' shindig.

The audience was made up of mums, dads, brothers and sisters of the cast and loads of us old alumni. The surtitles above the stage were excellent, giving rise to some laughter with the liberal translation of some of the text. Modern references replacing many of the obscure names and places in the original play. However at times the play was ahead of the surtitles or the surtitles raced ahead to come to a juddering halt while the action caught up.

All the cast were King's undergraduates, mostly reading Greek or ancient languages but not all. It was hugely impressive since many of them had only started to learn Greek in their first year at college. However, I've no idea whether or not they were speaking gibberish or not. It sounded pretty authentic to me.

This annual production continues a tradition which began in 1953 - I knew nothing about this when I was at Kings during 1966-69.

It was a refreshing experience full of fun, youthful vigour and promise. It made me proud to be Greek and an old man of King's 


Steve said...

I'm Spartacus!

Bojo said...

I can see you typing this stripped to the waist with glistening muscles and pecs surrounded by dusky Aegean beauties feeding you olives.

Jack the Hat said...

I do like a kebab myself but don't overdo the chillis

Anonymous said...

Really interesting piece. There is a lot to be learned from the Greeks. Good that there are some young people keen to keep up the tradition. No doubt though your erudite piece will attract the usual filth and nonsense from your other readers...

Marginalia said...

Dear anon. Thank you for your understanding and encouragement.

Dear others, I hope you're ashamed of yourselves.