Vice Versa

Vice Versa

We had a slow day today, with a run to the supermarket and another outdoor play this afternoon. This was As You Like It done by an amateur group from Cropredy. In true coarse acting style Touchstone stole the show by being louder than the other actors. Still, the sun was shining, the barely audible Rosalind was pretty, and the England won the Women’s Cricket World Cup. All in all a good afternoon.

I promised a review of the play we saw on Friday, Vice Versa, so here goes. This year the Royal Shakespeare Company is doing Rome, so the main stage has Titus Andronicus, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Anthony and Cleopatra, while the smaller Swan Theatre has Wilde’s Salome and a modern farce by Phil Porter based on the plays of Plautus, which is what we went to see.

If you grew up in Britain about the time I did, any mention of Plautus brings to mind Willie Rushton’s interjections in Up Pompeii which always started with, “Hear now the wise words of Plautus.” For those of you who are not lucky enough to remember Up Pompeii, it was a sitcom set in Roman times, featuring Frankie Howerd as a bossy yet put upon slave who also acted as chorus, talking directly to the audience at the start and end of the show. Howerd was a brilliant comedian whose facial gymnastics could make funny even the terrible puns that were a staple of the show.

I hate polishing lamps. They get on my wick.

In fact, the modern sitcom genre owes a lot to Titus Maccius Plautus, who was writing about 2,200 years ago, when Rome was still a republic. Plautus based his work on Greek comedies, but added better characterization and more dirty jokes. The result was formula that still works after two millennia. The bossy slave was one of the stock characters that Plautus stole from the Greeks, and the idea of a servant outthinking their master has been a comedy trope ever since. In this show that character was called Dexter, played brilliantly by Sophia Nomvete. Though the role would traditionally have been a white male, Nomvete is a woman of color. That’s not even anachronistic, as the Romans would have had slaves of many different races.

The plot features a boastful and vain general who has enslaved the beautiful Voluptua while her lover is away. Dexter arranges for Voluputa to pass backwards and forwards through the skylights to the property next door where her lover is staying on his return. When she is spotted by one of the general’s other slaves, she has to pretend to be Voluptua’s identical twin sister. Meanwhile the landlord of the house next door has to pretend to be a statue, and an entire crate full of groceries turns out to be bad puns. All standard farce stuff, but very well done.

As an interpreter of Plautus, Sophia Nomvete is up there with Frankie Howerd, chatting with the audience and hamming it up on stage. She won me over in the prolog, when the cast did a particularly impressive ensemble move, and when the laughter had died down she nodded and said, “Eight weeks rehearsal.”

The play has a happy ending for everyone except the villain, even the aging and bloated prostitute, Climax. For Plautus and the Romans of his time, sex work was just another career. The Roman’s attitudes to sex were just as f*cked up as ours are, but they were f*cked up in entirely different ways, and in some ways were definitely superior.

Anyhow, Vice Versa is well worth seeing if you want a good laugh. Nick, it’s a shame you couldn’t make it, there were some really great insults.

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