This review was originally written for The Public Reviews
The Ancient Greek god Dionysus went to hell and back. Now Hecate Theatre have taken his original subterranean quest and updated it for a modern audience.
According to Aristophanes, Greek tragedy was in decline after the death of the playwright Euripides, so Dionysus was sent from Mount Olympus down to Hades to bring him back. In Hecate Theatre’s Frogs, this journey has been comically adapted by writer Charles Scherer, with Dionysus now crossing the river Styx to arrange an unlikely showdown between William Shakespeare and Jane Austen, to determine which one is the greatest writer of all time.
The story is observed by a Greek chorus of frogs; Hecate Theatre’s five female members, daubed in green paint, ribbit and hop about a swampy landscape of rubbish, nets and the odd abandoned hub cap. In turn they transform into its main characters; Gemma Reynolds dons shades and a fur stole to become Dionysus, god of drama, while Hannah-Marie Chidwick becomes her sidekick slave Xanthias. Kate Mayne delivers a virtuoso performance as the cussedly no-nonsense boatman Charon, as well as Pluto, in charge of the Underworld, while Bella Fortune and Alice Chalk slug it out as Shakespeare and Austen respectively.
Programmed as part of the 2015 Bath Comedy Festival, this hour-long play fizzes with inventiveness and modern references, from Fifty Shades of Grey to zero hours contracts. Under Abbi Davey’s direction it gets off to a slightly slow start in establishing the potentially unfamiliar premise (perhaps an introduction could be given in the programme notes?), but really springs into life when the gnarled and grouchy Charon reluctantly agrees to transport the wine-swigging Dionysus and Xanthias across the Styx for a strictly set fee.
The contest is an energetically comedic centre-piece, with the initially reverential Austen turning on Shakespeare to put up a proper fight for the title of greatest writer. Shakespeare pompously dismisses her works as essentially plotless; her argument that too much happens in his plays (which he may not even have written) is supported by a very droll froggy re-enactment of some of his best known death scenes.
Designer Charlotte Cooke’s set deserves special mention, with credit being given in the programme for the number of video tapes destroyed in its creation. All in all, this is an endearing and fun family-friendly interpretation of one of the most ancient of classic tales.