The Clouds

Original text from my Italy Daily article on Aristophanes' Clouds, which in best nepotistic fashion, I was producing.

The phallic procession in Pizza
Navona, Rome, July 8, 2001

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts, especially those who are in fact British actors brandishing a 25-foot polythene phallus.

The barbarians are at the gates of Rome with a curious Trojan-esque offering, celebrating this week’s revival of Aristophanes’ controversial comedy, Clouds.

"People always ask how it feels to carry a giant willy down the street," quipped actor Tim Younger, "but it’s OK. I’m used to it."

Jokes aside, the Ancient Greeks did parade such mammoth members en route to the amphitheatres. Aristotle reported that comedy actually arose from "the leaders of the phallic processions," a key part of the rowdy summer fertility rites.

Quite appropriately, the production debuted at a festival – the Edinburgh Fringe in Scotland – last summer. The manly symbol was banned from the Royal Mile, though the actors tried to pass it off as a jolly pink caterpillar.

"The prohibition was ironic, considering how many objects we still worship which have their origins in phallic icons: maypoles, neckties and electric guitars," explained Clouds composer and translator John Curtis Franklin, a research fellow of the American Academy in Rome.

The cast expects a warmer welcome in Italy and plans a victorious lap around Piazza Navona before the final performance on July 8 at Palazzo Altemps, 5pm.

Yet size doesn't matter .. too much. Clouds certainly has more to recommend it than a big package. The mischievous production has a flawless academic pedigree. It boasts a new translation, as well as musical reconstruction based on Franklin’s PhD research.

Director David Mowat delicately handles the story, which swings between comedy and tragedy, vulgarity and philosophy, rubber chicken gags and vengeful goddesses. More importantly, he lets Aristophanes do what he does best: lying in the gutter, but looking at the stars.

The play, written in 423BC, remains surprisingly modern. A country bumpkin, deep in debt, forces his son – a good-time boy keen on women, wine and chariot-racing – to study under the pompous Socrates. Soon both are in a muddle, unable to chose between traditional values and flashy new ideas.

Best of all, this production of Clouds is honest. For centuries, the scandalous bits were suppressed or obscured. Now the uncensored version is on-stage July 5,6 and 7 at the American Academy in Rome, 9pm.

Yes, much of the humour is sexual and scatological: but this is antiquity in its full-blown glory. Bawdy. Brash. Beloved by the people. And bearing a 25-foot phallus.






Further Clouds

Actor Tim Younger dancing
outside the Pantheon during
the phallic procession

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