Bola Agbaje’s smart new play – presented as part of the Ovalhouse’s 33% London festival – borrows from Aristophanes’ ancient comedy Lysistrata to examine a latter-day ‘sex strike’ by three girls trying to bring their warring boyfriends to heel before they kill themselves or others. Lysistrata’s themes of the differences between the sexes, male weakness and sexuality are older than the original play itself, but here they’re given a modern slant and are considered here alongside knottier issues of feminist ethics and victim blame.
Since Aristophanes first staged Lysistrata over 2,400 years ago, the play has become something of a rallying point for women who wish to use sexual manipulation to control aggressive, sex-starved men. Of course, this is hardly everyone’s idea of positive feminism, and the play itself could hardly have been written as a feminist tract (both the players and the audience would have been all-male). But the feminist slant persists: here we have intelligent women using guile to achieve a positive outcome by making the most of men’s weaknesses. This slant came to the fore in Germaine Greer’s slapstick adaptation, whose popular 1999 run at the BAC under Phil Wilmott brought the play to new audiences’ attention.
Take a Deep Breath isn’t just an adaptation. Agbaje has based a new story on Aristophanes’ original, so she has more freedom to examine the modern debate surrounding male and female sexuality. Where Aristophanes (and Greer) uses Lysistrata primarily to poke fun at men’s tendency to think with their groins, Agbaje’s play is also sharply critical of women who think sex is innately more powerful than reason. It’s notable that Hazel (Tamara Camacho), who inspires the play’s women to stage their strike, ultimately also loses the most. Clearly men aren’t as simple as Lysistrata suggests.
The complexity of male sexuality is given close attention here, and from the outset the male characters seem rather deeper than the women. Paul (Leon Schwier) is sensitive, vulnerable and full of baseless bravado; Ryan (Jamael Westman) backs his hyper-masculine aggression with threatening physicality and self-centred bonhomie; and Andrew (Faruk Dogan) hovers between his two friends like a disloyal puppy seeking a master. Schwier’s performance is especially strong, investing great emotional energy into capturing Paul’s inner conflict between loyalty to his friends and the aching persistence of his own sexual desire as his girlfriend Candy teases him. Candy (Scarlet Billham) certainly works hard to drive Paul into a frenzy, teasing him with the hope of taking her virginity. Candy’s brash sexuality is drawn entirely from the empty-headed advice of more sexually experienced women around her, and this gives Agbaje a chance to explore the issue of victim blame. The audience’s palpable shock when the issue materialises suggests that Agbaje really has left people with something to think about.
There are a few witty nods at bigger truths in Toby Clarke’s production too, including a carelessly discarded copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point in Hazel’s living room. Gladwell’s thesis was that you need a number of exceptionally gifted people to be able to wreak huge changes on society. No such brilliance is on display in Agbaje’s characters. They fit realistic types rather than the heroes and heroines of Aristophanes, and are as prone to damaging blunders as anyone else. Given the chaotic outcomes of Hazel’s cack-handed crossed-legs policy, it seems unfortunate she didn’t get further than Gladwell’s first page. The audience can be thankful for her light-touch pop-psychology, however, as it leads to a pleasingly intelligent story which updates an ancient conceit with modern realities.