Director Michael Hurst is bringing Greek comedy Lysistrata to the stage. Written 2500 years ago, its message is just as strong today, he tells Dionne Christian

Until you know how to say it, the name Lysistrata doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. The Greek comedy, by writer Aristophanes, is 2500 years old but its "make love not war" message has permeated popular culture so there remains a pervasive awareness of the battle-of-the-sexes plot.

To convince their men to end the Peloponnesian War, feisty titular character Lysistrata, played by Amanda Billing, encourages the women of Athens and rival Sparta to abstain from sex with their husbands and partners until they negotiate a peace treaty. The men are outraged and, as the gender wars begin, tempers and libidos escalate out of control.

If anyone gives Lysistrata director Michael Hurst a puzzled look when he mentions it, he sums it up as "you know, the play about the women who go on a sex strike" and, he says, any confusion clears.

Hurst, who's reassembled the creative team who worked on his 2013 production of Chicago, says though the risque satire and its central plea for peace still resonates, don't mistake it for an early feminist text. Aristophanes may have been one of the first playwrights to write a female lead and the female characters are written sympathetically, but Hurst says Lysistrata was amusing to the Ancient Greeks because they simply couldn't imagine women being reasoned enough to devise such a ruthless plan and carry it through with controlled efficiency.

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"The women going on a sex strike isn't the most absurd thing in the show; it's the idea of a woman being so visible. It drew on contemporary issues, satirised local institutions and events, and sent up popular figures but it would have made the establishment sit up and take notice because its message was delivered by powerful female characters. That would have been something very different back then."

He says the play is essentially a plea for commonsense to prevail in difficult situations and for us all to work together for the betterment of our world. Hurst calls it a powerful celebration of the human condition.

"What I just love is that there will be people watching this today and laughing at the same jokes as someone else who was living 2500 years ago did. Human nature - our desires - survives despite all the attempts to get rid of it. I like how we are still able to have a conversation with this text all these years later."

His interest in Lysistrata started many years ago, originating in a childhood fascination with the ancient worlds of Greece and Rome. Although Hurst is renowned as a producer and performer of Shakespearean drama and comedies, he's equally as interested in classical plays and poetry which laid the foundations for modern theatre and storytelling.

He reckons sitting in the front row of the Cinerama in Christchurch as a small boy and watching Ben-Hur might have had something to do with it. In his early 20s, he saw a Theatre Corporate production of Seneca's Phaedra (directed by Raymond Hawthorne) and later travelled to Greece where he read classic texts Iliad and the Odyssey, and developed an interest in lyrical poetry by Sappho and Pindar and surviving plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. He took classical studies papers at university.

"And look at my career - I haven't been able to get away from it. I was in the TV series Hercules, directed Spartacus and now I'm back doing this."

This is the second time Hurst has staged Lysistrata and it reunites him with musical director John Gibson, who worked on the 1990 production at Wellington's Downstage Theatre. Hurst believes back then he overplayed the Sapphic and farcical elements of the story so it became a bit too much like a theatrical version of a Carry On film.

"It's 25 years later; we're all older and hopefully wiser and we all have different experiences to bring to it now."

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He toyed with various settings for this version: World War I, America, the current Greek austerity crisis, but didn't want to have to change the character or place names. In the end, he's opted for a Neo-Greek world, slightly sophisticated yet slightly naive.

There's a lot of music and movement in it, partly because memories of Gibson's beautiful and haunting 1990 score have remained strong and because Shona McCullagh's choreography is a way to capture a flavour of the ancient world.

Gibson says because no one knows exactly what Greek music was like - "but we know that they knew how to party" - he's drawn on an eclectic range of influences to make it sound as ancient as possible but also contemporary. "It's very tricky music," says Hurst, "but the cast jump through it like gazelles."

The cast includes Jennifer Ward-Lealand, Cameron Rhodes, Sia Trockenheim, Peter Hayden, Hannah Tasker-Poland, Andrew Grainger and Fasitua Amosa.

What: Lysistrata
Where and when: Q Theatre, to August23