Juvenal is most likely a familiar name to many people and yet very few
would claim to know much about him. Some might know that he is a satirist,
others might know of his once-famously irate persona. For a now such obscure
poet, he has bequeathed us a number of common phrases:
The pleasures of Juvenal lie more in the astonishing effects of his expression and his technical use of language than in actually finding him laugh-out-loud amusing.
But still, Juvenal is an obscure poet, now the domain of classicists, and thus Simon Callow’s decision to resurrect his 1976 one-man show – in which he dons the persona of the poet, ranting and reciting Peter Hall’s translation – might seem perplexing to some. It shouldn’t. One can hear in Callow’s Juvenal a rich and shocking voice. It is a voice of obscene hate, of demented and impish disgust, half-loathing, half-gleeful, smutty, smart, outrageously eloquent, but forever engaging its startling verbal gift with the gutter, the shitter and the whorehouse. As a literary voice one can hear its fiery echo in Swift, Rabelais, Celine and Amis.
The show has a simple setup: Callow stands on stage, tuxedoed, surrounded by a rather eclectic selection of items: palm-trees, a ruined head of a Roman statue in a basket, and the occasional sound of a passing car or motorbike. He stands, wanders around and recites. Callow performs with his characteristic aplomb and has cut up Juvenal’s text well, splicing various sections of the satires together so that we move quite seamlessly from rants against passive homosexuals to polemics against Greeks and insane tirades against women.
The major problem with this performance is that Juvenal simply is not very funny. The pleasures of Juvenal lie more in the astonishing effects of his expression and his technical use of language than in actually finding him laugh-out-loud amusing. This is a problem for a show marketed as a kind of Roman stand-up comedy. Judging from the audience response, it simply did not command laughter.
Callow has apparently deemed the time right for the return of his one-man Roman diatribe for reasons that seem as unclear now as they were in 1976. (The show was not received to critical acclaim then either.) This is worth seeing to hear the words of a now little-known ancient poet, but be prepared for homophobia, misogyny and very little comedy.