Jermyn Street Theatre, London – until 8 April 2017
Guest reviewer: Cassandra Griffin
The Frogs – If Shakespeare or George Bernard Shaw were still writing today, would we listen? We place huge importance on their profound wisdom. We openly recognise the relevance of their words and marvel at their insight. But the question remains, if they were here now, speaking truth and reflecting on the sad state the world is in; would the world hear them?
Aristophanes’ The Frogs, originally adapted by Burt Shevelove and later adapted by Nathan Lane is a modern retelling of Dionysus’ journey to Hades to retrieve the great dramatist Euripides in the hopes of showing mankind the folly of their way. A modern adaptation, Shevelove substitutes modern icon George Bernard Shaw for Euripides. Not only contemporising the piece but also adding an additional layer of credence to the message. A new era, a new solution, the same deaf frogs.
Directed and produced by Grace Wessels, with musical direction by Tim Sutton, ‘The Frogs’ is an amazingly cohesive piece of musical theatre that is as engaging as it is thought-provoking. In terms of score, I have to admit that I’m not the biggest Sondheim fan. But in spite of myself, I’ve been humming certain refrains all morning. Certainly testament to the skill of Sutton and his team.
Michael Matus’ Dionysus is a commanding presence on stage and is beautifully complemented by George Rae’s Xanthias, who is genuinely hilarious. Jonathan Wadey as Charon is an eccentric and volatile delight. Wadey shows an unwavering commitment to character and an unsettling unpredictability that will be sure to delight audiences night after night.
The ensemble cast are brilliant, working in sync as a Greek chorus should. Nigel Pilkington as Shakespeare brings a sincerity and warmth to the piece. While also peppering his performance with light-hearted comedic quips. Martin Dickinson’s Shaw is admirable in his brutal disregard for subtlety in the pursuit of truth. Dickinson presents a demeanour that is undeniably a representation of the works of Shaw. The stand out performance of the evening comes from Chris McGuigan. Performing the role of Herakles, along with numerous ensemble roles. McGuigan brings an enthralling presence to the stage which is both commanding and captivating. Inexplicably drawing your attention to him. Irrespective of whether he takes the stage as Herakles, hand maiden or ensemble member. He moves effortlessly between roles and demonstrates versatility along with undeniable skill.
As the production concludes, we return from the land of Hades “back to the real hell”. We begin to understand Bernard Shaw’s comment that we “will be governed by no better than we deserve”. Truly great writing is timeless, and Aristophanes speaks as faithfully today as he did in 400 BC. Perhaps we don’t need the return of Bernard Shaw or Shakespeare, or even the Greek masters Euripides and Aeschylus. Perhaps what we need, is to listen. If we don’t, the frogs will continue to enable unfit rulers.
Fortunately, deserving or not, Jermyn street theatre’s production is a gift to modern audiences and while normally I would caution to ‘beware Greeks bearing gifts’, the cast and crew of ‘The Frogs’ definitely have something special on their hands, that shouldn’t be missed.