Why ancient Greek frogs got Italian leader's goat

A play written 2,500 years ago has succeeded in pricking politicians in today's Italy just as its playwright did in ancient Greece.

The director of a production of Aristophanes' The Frogs, staged in an ancient Greek theatre in Syracuse, Sicily, has accused the government of censorship after calls to remove three billboard caricatures of the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, and two government ministers from the set.

The director, Luca Ronconi, claimed that a minister had contacted him and put aggressive pressure on him to remove the images.

There was no way the theatre – which is reliant on government funding for its productions – could misinterpret the intimidation or the threats, he told the Italian daily La Repubblica.

While Mr Ronconi acquiesced, he was also fiercely critical of the government. "It is a preventive censorship," he said. "I should leave this country."

But the Prime Minister insisted yesterday that his government had no intention of censorship, and urged the reinstatement of the props. "Of course they don't please me, but art has the right to choose – and miss – its targets," Mr Berlusconi said.

The billboards, which featured huge melting portraits of him flanked by the right-wing ministers Gianfranco Fini and Umberto Bossi, formed the backdrop of the set of the comedy, first staged in Athens in the 5th century BC.

Aristophanes was notorious for poking fun both at politicians and the literary establishment. In another of his works, The Acharnians, the central protagonist tells of being "dragged before the senate" by the leading politician of the day because of his comedy. The line is thought to refer to Aristophanes' own experience.

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