"Aristophanes' The Birds Opens At Stratford"
Greek Press - Published 30-06-2003
By James Karas
The Stratford Festival of Canada has finally taken a bow to one of the greatest comic writers by producing Aristophanes' masterpiece The Birds. Let's hope that this brilliant production is only the beginning.
Aristophanes (445 ? B.C. ? 380 B.C.) wrote several dozen plays but only eleven of them survive. They are the only examples we have of what has come to be known as Old Comedy, the wild, imaginative, licentious and brilliant plays that took on everyone from politicians to philosophers, from playwrights to the gods themselves.
The plot outline is relatively simple. Two Athenians, Pisthetairos and Euelpides, finding jury duty and debts unpalatable, leave the city behind in search of a better life. They seek out Tereus, the former king of Thrace, whom the gods have turned into a bird called a hoopoe. The Athenians convince him and the rest of the birds to construct a city in the sky between the earth and the gods and they call it Cloudcuckooland.
As soon as the city is built a series of scoundrels descend on it. A Travelling Prophet, a Decree Vendor, a crooked Inspector and an Informer are just a few of the unwanted visitors. Life in the sky, it seems, is no different from life in Athens. Then come the Olympian gods themselves ready to negotiate a peace treaty. Cloudcuckooland is interrupting the human sacrifices from reaching the gods and the gods agree to restore the supremacy of the birds and give Pisthetairos the goddess Basileia in marriage.
Keith Dinicol plays Pisthetairos, a charlatan but also a visionary, while Bernard Hopkins portrays the cowardly and garrulous Euelpides. Despite some minor opening night glitches, they did an excellent job. Dinicol's blustering voice was a perfect foil for Hopkins' supple accent and they reacted to each other well.
Designer Teresa Przybylsky provided brilliantly coloured costumes for the birds and hilarious attire for the scroungers and the gods. The two Athenians looked a bit like the French Foreign Legion or bumbling British explorers in 19th century Africa. Michael Vieira composed original music that ranged from the lyrical to the boisterous. In other words the play is set precisely where Aristophanes placed it: in Cloudcuckooland.
The Birds is not an easy play. The references to persons and places are almost entirely unfamiliar. The lyrical poetry is not easy to grasp and some of the humour is difficult to appreciate. Not to mention the chorus.
The chorus is one of the most difficult aspects of all Greek drama for both the audience and the director. It consists of a group of people which comments of the action of the play and is part of it. In this play the chorus consists of birds. Some of the most beautiful lines in Greek tragedy and comedy were written for the chorus but handling the delivery of the poetry has been anything but easy. Does the chorus speak in unison? Do you have the leader speak some of the lines and all others join in now and then? Do you include music? Dancing or other movement? The results could be numbing.
This is where Nikos Dionysios' strength as a director and choreographer are displayed to best effect. His handling of the chorus is without a doubt the best aspect of this marvelous production. He makes the chorus the focal point and moving force of the play and uses them as actors, singers and dancers so as to maintain the pace of the play. Thus a play with numerous unfamiliar and difficult passages is paced perfectly.
The make-or-break scene of the production is the first Parabasis. This is the scene where the action stops and Aristophanes addresses the audience directly through the chorus alone. It describes the mythical story of the creation of the gods, man and birds, in other words the Greek version of Genesis with satire added for good measure. It is a difficult scene and Dionysios uses it to produce astounding theatrical effects.
The chorus speak to the audience in unison, or in one, five or ten voices. Then male voices alternate with female voices. They sing, they dance, they are exuberant, they are subdued. Then the lights dim, the music trails off and the scene ends in a stunning lyrical diminuendo.
Comedy is supposed to end in marriage, reconciliation and happiness. And The Birds ends with the marriage song and the happy couple going off to their marriage bed. But here Dionysius provides another brilliant twist. Rather than end the play with the wedding celebration, he adds a brief scene. Tereus, the former ruler of the birds, leaves the stage; all the birds except one disperse in disarray. Only Pisthetairos and one bird are left on the stage; the lights dim, the bird screeches and crouches. The spotlight is on Pisthetairos who has become the dictator of what was supposed to be utopia. This is not a happy ending
The Birds was first produced in 414 B.C. during a chaotic period when Athens was at war with Sparta and some of the scroungers of the play were on the streets. It won second prize. But for this production a simple Greek word will suffice: thriamvos.
The Birds opened on June 25 and will run until September 27, 2003 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario.