The Frogs was an ancient Greek comedy from 405 BC by Aristophanes. It became a short musical piece performed in the Yale Swimming Pool in the 1970s by Burt Shevelove. And it is now a somewhat fully fledged musical thanks to Nathan Lane's obsession and fascination with the piece. It is having its UK premiere at the Jermyn Street Theatre.
In the version by Aristophanes, Dionysus, Greek god of theatre and wine, goes to the underworld in search of a playwright to rescue society. Along the way he has to contend with some frogs. Once in Hades he has to choose between two great writers of different styles. Either the harsh Aeschylus or the poetic Euripides. Burt Shevelove adapted the piece to be a contest between Shaw and Shakespeare. Sondheim contributed a few songs to the piece which served as choral pieces. In this version, described as even more freely adapted by Nathan Lane, the desire is to find a playwright who can speak for our times and unite the world.
The journey to Hades is not without incident. Dionysus is almost stopped in his journey by a chorus of Frogs in a tour-de-force of movement, singing and general frogginess. It's an impressive scene carried off by a chorus singing "Brek-kek-kek-kek"!
Lane adapted the piece against the backdrop of the invasion of Iraq, and the non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Towards the end of the piece there is a call to action over rhetoric that in an era of media fragmentation and polarisation seems very current.
But there is nothing like the passage of time to make you realise how global politics and discourse can only go from bad to worse. Although if Shakespeare is the answer to our problems we definitely need to rephrase the question. It comes across as naive theatre-speak.
All told it helps if you understand your ancient Greek texts and are a musical theatre aficionado. Sondheim's extra songs to his original 1974 contribution fill out the piece, but don't always propel the action along.
The semi-seriousness of the piece and a lack of pacing at times also gets in the way of jolly good romp. But Michael Matus as Dionysus and George Rae as his slave Xanthias are admirable pairing in the show. And Sondheimista's will love it all the same.
Besides, it is hard not to like a show which opens with "Instructions to the Audience" and the line: "Please don't fart. There is very little air and this is art." Anyone who has ventured to the intimate space of Jermyn Street Theatre knows exactly what they mean.
Directed by Grace Wessels, The Frogs runs at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 8 April. The run is sold out but returns may be available.
Photos by David Ovenden