THEATRE / All present and erect: Paul Taylor reviews Ranjit Bolt's stylishly smut-strewn translation of Aristophanes' Lysistrata at London's Old Vic

The gussets of the men's trousers are so floor-sweepingly voluminous you feel you'd have no problem stuffing a full week's family shopping into them. Which is just as well, given what they're forced to accommodate in the second half of Aristophanes' sublimely lewd Lysistrata. Here the hard-ons are as high as an elephant's eye or, to put it another way, is that a shoe-tree in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me? When one poor male attempts a courteous bow, he practically concusses himself on his reared-up rigidity.

This round-the-clock tumescence has been caused by the Athenian womenfolk who have gone on a sex- strike scheduled to last until the men agree to end the war with Sparta and divert their hostility from fellow Greeks to the enemy without. Along with all the right-on reasons for wanting peace, the ladies also have their own improved sex-lives very much in view. One snag with war is that it keeps every able-bodied male otherwise occupied: 'Mine's been in service since last spring / only see him when his sword needs sharpening,' as one of the wives laments in Ranjit Bolt's stylishly smut-strewn translation. You've heard of the Lays of Ancient Rome? Well, it would be quite wrong to regard these women as the Lousy Lays of Ancient Greece. They're dying for it: the temporary abstinence is just a classic case of reculer pour mieux sauter - ou quelque chose.

Peter Hall's excellent production rolls its sleeves up and mucks in from the opening moment, when we see a woman up a ladder daubing graffiti on a wall. P-E she paints, and there's a tiny pause, just long enough for you to think 'Ay, ay,' before the word is spelt out, irreproachably, as PEACE. All the actors wear half-masks; the women have cartoonily protuberant bosoms and backsides; the Chorus of Old Men are a doddering Dad's Army shower seemingly hung with draft-excluders. Hall writes in the programme of the grotesquery and childlike anarchy of Aristophanic comedy and implies that to expect actors to play it without masks would be like asking them to perform a Spitting Image script in flesh and blood.

Suddenly, the degree to which he has puppetised the personnel here seems to have had an exuberantly disinhibiting effect on both the cast and the audience. The underlying theme may be deadly serious and a strand of the comedy knowing and sophisticated (as when one of the women gushes that she would give her whole body for peace and Lysistrata drily asks whether she intends to be 'the whore to end all wars'). But that doesn't stop a lot of it coming across as a thinking person's Carry On in the Acropolis, a building (seen through a wall-flap in Dionysis Fotopoulos's set) which the old women have occupied, since it's where the exchequer is kept.

Comic highlights include Geraldine James (quite superb as Lysistrata) mimicking the pneumatic-drill purr of Eartha Kitt in a song where she confesses to backsliding desire ('The Leaderene who longs to be a tart') and the blissfully funny sequence in which Myrrhina (Diane Bull) alternately arouses and deflates her husband Kinesias (Timothy Davies) by tripping in and out with fresh items for the bed. His penis going up and down like an overworked drawbridge, Kinesias is reduced to asking 'What is this - a fuck or a bed-making competition?'

The original is full of topical references which Bolt has wisely chosen to prune down. Twice, though, his version vaults the millennia to confront us directly: first in an interlude when Lysistrata and her sidekicks whip off wigs and masks and argue in couplets that today is beyond satire or redemption, and again at the end, when the tipsy panhellenic reconciliation party freezes, tellingly, to the sound of modern warfare. Two peculiarities: Athens was a mecca for bisexuality and had enough pornographic pots to tire any male wrist, so it can't just be erotic relief the men are after. Strange, too, that Athens could produce a play about women taking charge and yet may have denied women access to the theatres. As Hall's production proves, though, this is still an indecently good show.

Old Vic, SE1 (071-928 7616)

(Photograph omitted)

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