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INTERVIEW: Gaggle On Updating Lysistrata
Emily Mackay , August 6th, 2015 12:29

The all-female ensemble's Deborah Coughlin talks to us about their take on Aristophanes' sex strike comedy before the show begins at the Almeida in London this weekend. Photographs courtesy of Kylie Ann Fisher

London's Almeida theatre is currently running a season of fresh takes on the classics called Greeks. Nestled among the likes of Bakkhai, starring Ben Whishaw, and Medea with Kate Fleetwood, irrepressible choir-cum-performance group Gaggle are staging a reinterpretation of Aristophanes' smutty gender-war comedy Lysistrata. In the original play, the woman of the title foments an asexual revolution among the women of Athens, making them reluctantly pledge to withhold their bodies from their husbands until the frustrated men agree to negotiate an end to the Peloponnesian war. Gaggle's version of Lysistrata stars a host of fresh young female comic talent as well as the gang themselves and Charlotte Church, who also appeared in Gaggle's Yap! Yap! Yap! ("like The Vagina Monologues only not just about fannies") back in March. The script, set in an unidentified country, touches on the shifts of contemporary politics, personal struggles with alcohol, and the value of er, coming together, in the story of four very different women who meet by chance and try to find a way to make a real change. Head Gaggle Deborah Coughlin tells us more...

When did you start working on your version of Lysistrata? There're so many topical echoes...

Deborah Coughlin: I had the idea in 2010, and then in 2012 we'd released our album [Mouth Of The Cave] on Transgressive and I just wanted to do something else really quickly, and so for Illuminations festival, we made an immersive version of Lysistrata. It didn't have a theatrical narrative; it was just videos, music and dance. One of the women who work at the Almeida went to that, and when they were doing the Greeks season and they wanted to create some shows that would maybe bring some different people to the classics, she got in touch and I said, "Well, I've always wanted to make a musical play out of it."

There's so many things in it that chime with stuff that's been happening over the past few years, like the Occupy movement. The women block the banks in our version, and the old women do that in the original one - because the old women apparently aren't having sex, that was the take back then. It's really funny, because the stuff that this play from thousands of years ago is about, is quite literally happening now. That just always makes me wonder how much really changes. Are we destined to repeat the same failures, or are there some things that we're always going to do? I feel a bit like that with feminism sometimes - it feels like you're taking a few steps forward but also a few steps back with things. We need to be vigilant, that we can't assume that things are always going in the right direction. Of course, this whole play was written by a man, and it would have been performed with all men. And now we've done it with all women.

And in your version of the play, is the women's withdrawal of sex more explicitly a strike, an industrial action?

DC: Well, women do go on sex strikes around the globe for various different reasons. In the original Lysistrata, they talk about having a sex strike, but then it's kind of a bit Carry On, especially in a lot of the modern translations. There's people running round with strap-ons, and all kinds of weird knob jokes. I wasn't really into that; I thought it'd be really interesting if four women went on a sex strike. One of our characters is a lesbian - so how does that affect her? Does she need to go on a sex strike if she's a lesbian, if it's kind of a patriarchy strike? And then what happens when people break it? Because I couldn't imagine many of my friends being able to take part in a sex strike.

And then there are other things that hold people back from having the power that they want. We look at alcohol as well. For one of the characters, it's her way of coping with the world, but it also prevents her from achieving the things she wants to do, and that's a story that's been part of my life and been a part of a lot of my friends' lives as well. Alcohol is everywhere and it can be very comforting, especially when the world seems like a difficult place. And also we look at learning how to assert yourself.

Were there any bits in the original where, in the process of adaptation, you thought: "This will not stand"?

DC: Yeah, the ending of Lysistrata is really problematic. There's the massive orgy, which isn't problematic in itself, but the women kind of hand over a prostitute as a sacrifice, and her name is Reconciliation. But our ending is completely different. In fact, you're left wondering whether you need a martyr in a political movement for it to actually make a difference. Also, our play doesn't begin with one woman bringing all the other women together. It starts in a spa. All the women on the stage are gonna be in swimming costumes or towels in a pretend sauna. And they just start talking… and being gross as well, eating in the spa. This is all based on my experience at Mile End Leisure Centre spa. People eat in it, I've seen physical fights in there. Spas are weird places. I'm not talking mega posh spas, but your average thing at a swimming pool. To hear women in these places talking is really, really interesting.

I wanted a group of four women who all brought something to the table. So I've got a woman who's an ex-MP, who was forced out of her job because she wouldn't vote for a war. I felt that some people, even when they get to being an MP, don't get to do the things that they really believe in. That's why somebody like Jeremy Corbyn, or on the opposite extreme Nigel Farage, have that popular appeal, because they sound like they're actually saying what they mean, whereas everybody else sounds like they're saying a script. I really wanted to include the idea that somebody who has managed to get themselves into a situation where they seem to have lots of power might actually get more done if they do something in a more radical or subversive way. Then we've got another who's a single mum and into self-help books, reading a lot of Eckhart Tolle and loves Denise off This Morning. And she's got a lot of anxiety. Apart from the fact I haven't got any kids, she's probably the most similar to me. Then I've got a failed academic, who is an alcoholic, and this amazing character called Lampy, who's a hairdresser and she's a little bit mad. We talk about her being a bit like Kanye, having really, really good points, but saying them in such a mad way that it's hard for people to take it seriously.

How did you get involved with Charlotte Church?

DC: I'd always been an admirer of Charlotte's, and I really liked her four EPs that she did, especially the song 'Glitterbombed'. And also, I was blown away by how fucking smart and together she seemed at the Leveson inquiry. I saw her acting in Under Milk Wood as well. And so when we did Yap! Yap! Yap!, I thought, I'm just going to ask her if she wants to be in it. And she was brilliant. Then this opportunity came up, and I just thought she would be great in the cast. She plays the ex-MP.

Who fills the other main roles?

DC: Jamie-Rose Monk, who was in a a sketch show last year called The Gag Show - she's a comedy genius, and she's just landed her first BBC show, which comes out in the autumn. And then there's another girl called Katy Menczer who helped me write the sketch show and was in it as well. And then there's another new young and very talented woman called Lauren La Rocque, and Scarlett Lasoff, who's been in Gaggle for ages but is also a performance artist. And Gaggle of course, who act as a general consciousness and context and environment and spirit that the women are involved in. There's a lot of the choir actually questioning the audience - in 'Hidden Army', they're going: "I know you, I see you, you want to but you don't do." As in, we're all saying we want to change things, but… part of the show is all about hating people being told that they're apathetic because they don't go on a march. Because I do all these things, I vote and I go on these marches and sometimes it feels… not like I'm apathetic, but like I'm impotent. That what I do doesn't change anything. Like, I voted Liberal Democrat in 2010 when they teamed up with the Tories. And the reason I voted Liberal Democrat was that it was the only other option other than Tory where I was voting at the time. I voted for them to try and keep the Tories out, and then they teamed up with the Tories! I was like, "Hang on a second…" And I went on the march against the Iraq war. And then after that I was kind of like, "Uffff…" One of the characters, Miriam, she says, "I've been on all these marches, and every time I march, the exact opposite happens. So I began to think it was me, and I've stopped going on them." There's a little bit of how I feel about that.

What is the production going to be like musically? In my head, perhaps because of the bawdy translations, it sounds a bit like 'Oom-Pah-Pah' from Oliver!

DC: [laughs] No, not at all. There were three songs that were written specifically which we released a few months ago: 'Make Love Not War', 'Future' and a song called 'Claws'. And there's another song that's called 'Hidden Army'. We're using two songs that were on Mouth Of The Cave, one song from The Brilliant And The Dark, a few new songs, and one really, really old song that's never been recorded, but just made sense with the story. I really want to develop the show some more and take it on tour next year. I think it'd be really cool to make it even funnier, to make it a bit longer, and to make it more like a musical, rather than a musical play. And maybe a bit more oom-pah-pah, because the music at the moment, most of it's quite serious and quite beautiful and moving. Yeah, maybe something that's a bit more like Wicked. I don't know. Not that Wicked isn't moving. I was moved by Wicked.

I know you stripped out a lot of the knob gags, but was it difficult to keep a straight face during rehearsals nonetheless?

DC: I crack up all the time because the cast are so funny. I can go a bit hysterical. And we have this dance at the end that cracks me up as well. It's quite violently sexual. But not in a nasty way. Just aggressive, ugly sexual moves by women. You see a lot of sexy moves, but this is so sexy it's almost not sexy. It's probably a bit more realistic as to what sex actually looks like.

Do you think people will come away inspired? Not necessarily to have a sex strike, like…

DC: I wouldn't recommend people do a sex strike… unless they feel very strongly about it! But I do think it's good for people to start their own groups and get together with people, maybe people different to themselves. I don't know what people will be inspired to do, but what I hope is that people really enjoy it. And that it's fun.

Gaggle: Lysistrata is at the Almeida in London, running tomorrow and Saturday, August 7-8; for full details and tickets, head here