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Tiger at the Gates

Simon Pettitt

From the Sussex Express and County Herald – Friday November 24, 1967

WITH bronze helmets and vividly coloured robes, gleaming against a background of marble columns, the pageantry of ancient Greece was effectively presented on the stage at Lewes County Grammar School for Boys when the first performance of the school play, ‘Tiger at the Gates’ opened on Wednesday last week.

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With the assistance of a group of seniors from Lewes Girls Grammar School a noteworthy performance was given of this satirical version of the start of the Trojan War, by Jean Giraudoux, translated from the French by Christopher Fry. The cast consisted of 21 boys and eight girls, and Mr. Peter Taylor was the play producer.

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Although the story is of Troy, and the principal heroes of the Iliad take part, Giraudoux’s version is a travesty, though a shrewd one, of Homer’s version. It is the story of a war which should never have been started. It follows the form of the classic Greek tragedy, in which all the efforts of the human puppets of fate, who are the players, cannot evade their tragic destiny which is fore-ordained.

The author uses the play as a vehicle to express, in telling lines, many thoughts which must be in the minds of all peoples in the troubled world of today.

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War weary Hector, warrior prince of Troy, returns home war-weary from a victorious campaign to his wife Andromache and his unborn child. Passionately he longs for peace. But he is faced with an immediate threat of war by the arrival of a Grecian fleet carrying an army thirsting for vengeance because Paris (Hector’s brother) has abducted the beautiful Spartan princess Helen and carried her off to Troy.

Prepared to submit to any humiliation rather than fight, Hector receives the Greek emissaries and their legendary heroes Ajax and Ulysses (or should it be Odysseus?). Hector offers to give up Helen, and refuses to be provoked into aggressive reaction even when struck on the face and taunted as a coward. The emissaries leave, baffled, and the thankful cry goes up from the walls of Troy: ‘There will be no war.’

This cry unleashes the fury of Demokos, the Trojan poet, who is accustomed to rousing the mob with his fanatical oratory. To silence him, Hector strikes with his spear, and Demokos falls mortally wounded. With his dying breath the poet cries after the departing emissaries: ‘Ajax has killed me. Kill Ajax.’ And so the one blow struck by Hector in defence of the peace that he so dearly craved, leads to the inevitable war.


Tiger at the Gates scene

The curtain falls on an ingenious anti-climax revealed by the sudden opening of two doors. The disclosure turns tragedy into comedy, and all ends in laughter.

The piece is a particularly difficult one for young players to present, with its changing moods crossing the borderline separating farce from more serious intent. It seems, too, that the translator has overloaded it with words to the extent of burdening the actors. However, the difficulties were courageously attacked, and on the whole, with considerable success.

If the production lacked, in places, movement, this was compensated by effective grouping. The colourful robes and excellent lighting effects, with the aid of a skilfully designed set, enabled some really beautiful scenes to be presented.

Mr. Peter Toy and his team of scene builders managed to overcome the difficulty of the flat stage — the bugbear of so many school performances — by constructing a series of portable terraced platforms in the guise of steps.

The lighting effects reached their zenith with the arrival of the messenger of the gods (Debbie Lawrence), an ethereal figure emerging from a rainbow.

Leading roles

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The leading parts were taken by Chris Beal as Hector and Penny Adams as Helen. A warrior disillusioned by war, determined to lead his people along wiser paths, yet tricked by fate into betraying them, Chris Beal played a demanding role with outstanding success.

His greatest moment was his oration to the dead, an emotional appeal on different lines from the classic form. He appeared in moving scenes with Andromache (Amanda Silk).

Penny Adams was an alluring Helen. All men paid tribute to her blonde beauty except the youthful Trojan Troilus (Nick Beal). His eventual submission to the wiles of the scorned beauty was as inevitable as the finale of every Greek tragedy.

Simon Pettitt, as Demokos, presented admirably the eccentric, colourful character of the poet who sparked off the war. David Holcombe, as Busiris, a neutral adviser in the diplomatic exchanges between the Trojans and the Greek envoys, was worthy of the present-day United Nations. Stephen Coote was a ready mathematician who had all the answers.

Neville Benwell (Ulysses) and Richard Job (Ajax) were magnificent in their glittering accoutrement. They came unstuck when they could find nothing to fight about, and Ajax sought the consolation of the bottle. This hastened his untimely end at the hands of the mob.

Other leading parts were taken by Martin Harvey (Priam, King of Troy), with Wendy Silk as Hecuba, his queen, Roderick Hall (Paris, abductor of Helen) and Stephanie Higgs (prophetess Cassandra).

Other parts were taken by Tim Mitchell (messenger), Jonathan Rowans (Abneos), Will Stovell (topman), Tim Hill (Olpides), Rob Precey (senator). David Moore (sailor), Martin Ryle and Kim Fuller (old men), Peter Mobbs, Ian Yoxall, Nick Isbister and Cym Ryle (Trojans), Sally Sharp (laundress), Magda Phillips (servant), Jennifer Taylor (Polyxene, daughter of Hecuba).

Grammar School girls, assisted by friends of the school, were responsible for the brilliant costumes which contributed so much to the success of the play.