Aristophanes’ sex comedy Lysistrata here gets an update with all female group Gaggle, directed and written by Deborah Coughlin. Instead of Lysistrata holding the men of Thebes and Sparta to ransom in Athens with a sex strike until the aggressive factions make peace and end the Peloponnesian war, here we have homegirl Lampy and ex anti-war and disillusioned MP Hannah (aka Lysistrata) joining forces with two other unhappy women post the 2015 election to create VOJ, or Vigilantes of Justice. Their mission, with a ‘camp bank’ chorus of women as their followers, and in superhero outfits that look like they have stepped out of a new all-female Marvel film, is to take down the government and control the economy.
Sex is not forgotten: true to the text, the girls set about going on a sex strike in protest against the injustices and futility of war and in general over how men behave (especially against political and journalistic commentators seemingly furthering their own careers through today’s present welfare crises) but the strike is something that even they cannot comply with. Parting ways from Aristophanes’ original, any attempt to portray Lysistrata as a devious woman, manipulating her counter parts to get what she wants in the same way that the men do and which they are fighting against, is ditched however, and whilst this makes the production far more modern – Aristophanes’ Lysistrata might have washed immediately post Thatcher but the world is a little bit more savvy now – it does weaken the idea that women have to play (still) to their sexual and idealised stereotypes in order to get what they want. And apart from a first scene where the girls bandy around jokes about the size of bushes and breasts ‘escaping’ there is no real sexual ambiguity or sense that the women start to look at each other as men might. The only gender play comes with women dressing up as men and impersonating TV personalities, but as they don’t want sex with the women, it is not clear what the point is.
The production, though gently comedic, does feel a little skeletal. And apart from the song interludes, which simultaneously combine the girl power appropriated by The Spice Girls with some Bjork parody and melodrama though not quite with her ‘fuck you’ attitude (which I was longing for), the work feels like a conundrum. Dramatic scenes that inhabit the space between the numbers draw from cult sitcoms like Miranda and The Thick of It, there is a soft dig at Trews TV, Russell Brand, a feminist Germaine Greer look-a-like (who, incidentally, in the 1970s, was involved in producing a version with Phil Willmott for the National, which never got staged) but it all rather feels like boxes are being ticked. Without Aristophanes’ hard line leader Lysistrata, here transposed into a rather spineless but probably more realistic female MP (played by Charlotte Church making her London stage debut) the narrative loses some force. The end number, replacing the character Peace perhaps, would also make much more sense with a truer update of the comedy.
Undoubtedly Gaggle are good to watch and listen to, but feel a little sanitised and utopian as they march on the spot for a better future like an army of birds. Enjoyable, but the piece seems a mass of contradictions whose ironies are not fully explored.