THE CLOUDS or The lowest form of Higher Education

Playhouse Theatre, Dunedin

01/08/2019 - 10/08/2019

Production Details

For a comic poet Aristophanes was a serious man and he wrote serious plays. As one scholar has noted, “the Clouds is in fact, if not in name, a tragedy.” So be careful what you laugh at. When he first presented his play in 423 BC the audience was not impressed. He therefore revised it by putting in a speech reminding them how stupid they were not to get the point the first time. 

The play has been further revised for this production, first by putting it into English for the convenience of a new audience, second by slimming it down bit, third by picking up the plot and slipping it, like a well-worn academic gown, on to the academy of the 21st century. This last was really quite easy, given the fact that those little human weaknesses like greed, vanity and the love of power are as characteristic of our modern, corporatised institutions as they were of those from the deep and distant past. 

Why a tragedy? Unlike the officially tragic poets, Aristophanes doesn’t pour buckets of blood all over his actors, but there is a certain level of violence. It’s intellectual and moral violence and it all rebounds on the shifty old twister who wants to use education for all the wrong reasons. And the institution that substitutes management for education is only too happy to oblige.

“The Clouds” has been adapted by Dr Harry Love, who is also directing this production for the Dunedin Repertory Society. Music is by John Drummond. This professional production features Ralph Johnson, Alfie Richardson, Marilyn Parker, Kerin Skelton, Priya Makwana, Jude Conway, Harry Love and Matthew Robertson. 

This production has been generously supported by: Otago Community Trust; Dunedin City Council; A. J. Grant; University of Otago.

Playhouse Theatre, Albany St, Dunedin
August 1 to 10, at 7.30 pm
(2pm Matinee, Sunday 4th)
(03)4776544 to book. $25, concessions $20.

Strepsiades, Ralph Johnson
Pheidippides, Alfie Richardson
Sokratease, Marilyn Parker
Student, Kiran Skelton
Prof Ortho, Harry Love
Prof Skolio, David Thomson
Chorus, Priya Makwana & Jude Conway

Design by Catherine Madill.

Lighting,    Dylan Shields
Costumes, Penny Love & Courtney Drummond
Set, Andy Armstrong & Iaon Bramhall
Administration, Jemma Adams

Theatre , Political satire ,

Education satirised

Review by Barbara Frame 05th Aug 2019

Pestered by son Pheidippides’ creditors, Strepsiades wonders if education can teach him to talk his way out of anything, especially paying bills, so he enrols himself at the Qualificatory.

Here, trivial and useless knowledge is taught, confusion and obfuscation take precedence over logic, conformity rules, and everything is someone else’s fault. Social responsibility and critical thinking are not allowed. The Qualificatory’s  motto is Expendere aude, and although the students are told not to ask questions, the staff’s outfits invite them to “Ask Me.” The extent to which tit resembles a tertiary institution located close to the Playhouse Theatre is, of course, for the audience to decide.

Harry Love’s adaptation of Aristophanes’ original play was first performed at the Globe Theatre is 2001, and it has now been revised. Recent changes in higher education have sharpened its satirical intention and effect, and the pretension and commercialism of modern degree-granting institutions are viciously, satisfyingly and continuously lampooned.

Ralph Johnson and Marilyn Parker, long-time performers in Love’s translations and adaptations of classical dramas, bring their experience and professionalism to the roles of Strepsiades and Socrates, the Qualificatory’s CEO. Alfie Richardson transforms Pheidippides from careless oaf to the vain, callous possessor of a purchased diploma. Other parts are played by Love (who also directs), Keran Skelton and Matthew Robertson.

Music by John Drummond is directed and performed by Alan Starrat and singers Priya Makwana and June Conway – the Chorus having, the programme informs us, been downsized to produce “tremendous salary savings.”

Like the other 20 or so audience members, mostly connected in way or another to tertiary education in Dunedin, I enjoyed this hilarious and scathing commentary on the past, present and future of university studies.  


Make a comment

Paradoxically confusion and chaos make for scintillating theatre

Review by Terry MacTavish 03rd Aug 2019

“Don’t laugh,” we are warned, “this could be your university!” And there on Catherine Madill’s eye-catching poster, right below The Clouds, or the Lowest Form of Higher Education is the lovely old clock tower of our own University of Otago. In the true tradition of Greek Old Comedy, Harry Love has boldly updated Aristophanes’ satire to poke fun at ludicrous trends in contemporary educational institutions run by managers rather than academics, and the result is a gle  eful romp that does not lack serious commentary. Impossible not to laugh!

Love, who is massively experienced in directing Greek Drama, has been fortunate in securing two of the original actors from his first production Oedipus the King in 1994, to play the leads in The Clouds. Marilyn Parker makes a most surprising, very superior Sokratease, CEO of an academy that teaches dubious rhetoric, while Ralph Johnson charms as the protagonist and stock comic character, Strepsiades, whose very name means Twister, but is yet possessed of ‘poneria’, a sort of loveable roguishness. 

In fact Johnson’s astounding vigour, perfect diction and vividly expressive gestures energise the whole play. He revels in the role of the devious old man who thinks he sees a way out of the debts run up by his idle gambler of a son, Pheidippides, who has obviously lacked tough love in his upbringing. Strepsiades determines to send the youth to “The Thinkery”, Aristophanes’ parody of the Greek philosophical academies, where the boy will learn how to argue wrong is right and thus wheedle his way out of debt.

Although at first his son, played by a delightfully louche Alfie Richardson, will have none of it, he is eventually drawn in to witness a debate between the straight Professor Ortho (Harry Love himself as a bumbling old-fashioned academic) and the bent Professor Skolio (Matthew Robertson with pony-tail and amazing whiskers), at the end of which it is plain that the unjust and unscrupulous argument will inevitably trounce the just. So cynical. And just wait till you see what sort of a monster young Pheidippides will become! 

Aristophanes in his writing seems to have reached the grumpy-old-man phase of life, convinced the modern generation is going to the dogs, with no respect for its elders or the good old Athenian values. Blaming this social decline on the Sophists (and somewhat unfairly, Socrates) he employs the journey of first father then son through the Thinkery to ridicule the ancient academics mercilessly, from their absurd debates on the distance a flea can jump, to the sudden reveal of a gold toilet for the humiliation of their pupil. 

Yes, there is a good deal of lavatory humour (though Johnson’s vocalisation of the stages of a fart practically raises it to an art form), but also sparkling wit, agreeable music, and barbed topical references to the battle between the Old (the search for truth and beauty) and the New (cost-benefit analysis couched in incomprehensible jargon). In his lively adaptation Love has followed the form of old Attic comedy closely, the slapstick and debates broken up by mischievous singing from the Chorus of Administrative Clouds (or spiritual economists), who clearly represent the all-seeing administrative staff of a university, and have thus naturally been downsized from 15 to 2 “in best Human Resource practice”.

Sokratease is certainly not the noble philosopher of Plato’s Dialogues, and although her first entry is imposing, high above the stage studying the heavens, Parker’s Sokratease is a down-to-earth bureaucrat, power-dressed in a tailored suit with dark glasses and American accent, intent on financial profit rather than higher learning. For the CEO of a university to be a woman seems quite plausible these days, especially as Parker carries it off with elegant insolence.

Local university legend, John Drummond, has composed the whimsical music that adds so much to the ambience. I am quite proud to recognise variations on Gaudeamus Igitur! The music is directed, and performed cheekily onstage, by Alan Starrat, with clever lyrics nicely delivered by Priya Makwana and Jude Conway as the Administrative Clouds. Their costumes, like the rest by Penny Love and Courtney Drummond, are playfully contemporary: grey waistcoats over silver trousers. Multitasker Keran Skelton is busy filling in all the bit parts.

Lighting by Dylan Shield complements Iaon Bramhall and Andy Armstrong’s simple set, predominantly white with a beautiful Grecian entrance to the Thinkery. Above the door is its delightfully ironic motto: not Otago’s Dare to be Wise, but “Expendere Audi” – Dare to Spend! Hopefully our University, proudly celebrating its 150th year, will take note.

The Clouds is not only a wonderful chance to see a classical theatre form enacted with confident authenticity and genuine humour, but a reflection on a very topical issue bugging our Polytechnics and Universities. As ancient Roman Petronius said, in lamenting that whenever a successful team was formed, restructuring would be deemed necessary: “Reorganising … a wonderful method for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation.”  But there’s the paradox, as this spirited production shows: confusion and chaos clearly make for scintillating theatre! 


Make a comment

Wellingon City Council
Aotearoa Gaming Trust
Creative NZ
Auckland City Council