Report on the 1994 Festival at Epidavros

by Katerina Arvaniti
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The festival of ancient Greek drama at the theatre of Epidavros celebrated its fortieth year in the summer of 1994. The theatre was excavated in 1881 by the archaeologist Panayis Kabbadias, but it was not until the autumn of 1938 that the theatre hosted its first performance of ancient Greek tragedy. The Royal Theatre of Greece (later to become the National Theatre) presented Sophocles' Electra under the direction of Dimitris Rondiris on 11 September 1938.

That initiative was cut short by the Second World War, however. Fourteen years later, on 11 July 1954, Dimitris Rondiris inaugurated the summer performances of Greek tragedy, which took the name 'Festival of Epidavros' in the following year. The first play performed at the new festival was the National Theatre's production of Euripides' Hippolytus, which established a tradition which has continued unbroken to the present day and has enabled many Greek and foreign theatrical companies to present plays in a variety of styles.

The first production at the 1994 Epidavros Festival was Aeschylus' Suppliant Women, presented on 2-3 July by Desmoi, the Centre for Research and Practical Application of Ancient Greek Drama. Desmoi was founded by Aspasia Papathanasiou, a leading actress in the field of ancient Greek tragedy. Stavros Doufexis, a distinguished Greek director, gave a Brechtian interpretation of the play, introducing as chorus leader a narrator (Aspasia Papathanasiou) in a black dress who read the modern Greek translation (by K. Ch. Myres) of the choral odes while the rest of the chorus delivered them in the original. The sixteen members of the chorus and all the actors except the narrator wore full masks. The music was dominated by Eastern sounds reminiscent of the Eastern origin of the fifty princesses who sought refuge in Argos to avoid an enforced marriage to their Egyptian cousins.

The following weekend (9-10 July) the Teatro Bulandra di Bucarest performed Sophocles' Antigone, directed by Alexandru Tocilescu. The director admitted that he had approached Antigone thinking not of Attic tragedy or Sophocles but of Yugoslavia and wars amongst kinsmen. He set his production in a bombarded city whose citizens were dressed in rags. Antigone and Ismene pulled each other's hair and punched one another over the issue of their brother's burial, while Creon shot the guard who brought him bad news, and raped the beautiful Ismene. Teiresias was dressed in a woman's low-necked evening gown and delivered his prophecies screaming and trembling. The performance ended with a bombardment in which all on stage were killed and the linen screen to the left of the acting area was bathed in red. The production also featured live rock music, which interrupted the 'tragic' monologues and dialogues.

The National Theatre's first performance at the Festival this year was Aristophanes' Clouds (16-17 July), dedicated to actress Melina Merkouri who died in March 1994. It was director Korais Damatis' first appearance at Epidavros. Giorgos Michalakopoulos, one of the best comic actors in Greece, ensured the success of the production with his performance as Strepsiades, in pink with padded buttocks and belly. Even the critics who did not favour the directorial approach congratulated Michalakopoulos' performance.

The production made allusions to the contemporary political situation in Greece. Aristophanes' Cleon, who had received exemption from military service, was replaced by the present Minister of Culture, who managed to avoid his own military service, which is compulsory for males in Greece. Socrates was presented as a clown riding on a circus bicycle, while his students were freaks. The 25 cloud-women of the chorus rode on signs of the zodiac and astrological symbols in the orchestra. They wore plaster casts of faces on their heads and fine, transparent white garments.

The National Theatre's second production, on 23-24 July, was Euripides' Hecuba. The director, Kostas Tsianos, is known for his successful work with the Municipal and Regional Theatre of Larissa in Thessaly. His production of Euripides' Electra in 1988 made use of folk dances and costumes in the popular tradition of modern Greece, and he applied the same approach here. This time, however, it was less successful: the chorus' united rhythmic movements did not convey tragic passion. Anna Synodinou's legendary tragic voice was not at its best, and her Hecuba was restricted by her Thessalian folk costume. The music, moreover, was completely alien to the action of the play. Ioanna Papantoniou's scenery, simple and functional with three military tents as background and barrels scattered around the acting area, was one of the most impressive features of the production.

On 30-31 July Epidavros hosted Peter Stein's highly praised marathon version of Aeschylus' Oresteia, performed in Russian by the Academic Theatre of the Russian Army. (It premiered in Moscow on 29 January, 1994.) The performance lasted almost six hours because the original text had been translated almost word for word. Meticulous construction of character and attention to detail of gestures and movement were the production's most striking features. The chorus of Agamemnon consisted of old men gathered in order to recall the past with their endless talk, who had difficulty walking even with their sticks and occasionally coughed or sneezed.

The other notable feature of Stein's Oresteia was his contemporary approach to the political issues of the trilogy, starting with the fact that he had decided to produce it in Moscow at that particular point in the city's history. As Athena was trying to persuade the Furies to accept the new order, the jurors, supposedly representatives of the new democratic principles, started fighting amongst themselves: democracy was under threat by the arbitrariness of its political disposition. The same jurors appeared at the end to tie the Eumenides up like mummies at the base of the platform which represented the foundation of their city, and went on with their endless voting.

Spyros A. Evangelatos and his Amphi-Theatre have participated in the Epidavros Festival since 1975. This year they presented Sophocles' Trachiniae on 6-7 August. Evangelatos' approach has always been characterised by a 'classic' conservatism, which appeals to Greek audiences. His interpretation of Trachiniae was intellectual rather than emotional and did not convey the passion of love persuasively. Leda Tassopolou, restricted by her austere appearance and formally trained voice, failed to demonstrate Deianeira's personal tragedy. On the other hand, Dimitris Papamichail as Heracles dominated the stage with a powerful voice which conveyed all the human agony of a man facing death as well as bodily pain. As a result of this contrast Heracles was humanised and attracted more sympathy from the audience than Deianeira did. Laloula Chrysicopoulou's plain scenery was reminiscent of a surrealist picture: the orchestra was covered with grass to present an 'impasse', enclosing a flat gravestone, with a lonely cypress tree representing human passion.

Karolos Koun's Art Theatre presented Aristophanes' Wealth on 13-14 August. Mimis Kouyioumtzis, the director, is one of the three successors of Karolos Koun (known as the 'Daskalos'), who had directed Wealth in 1957. According to Kouyioumtzis, the play is a 'fairy tale'. He emphasised this idea by framing Aristophanes' play within the improvisations of a touring company which took over the stage.

One of the production's major strengths was the work of scenographer Dimitris Mytaras, a well-known Greek painter. Mytaras was responsible for both the simple scenery, which was dominated by cloths and agricultural tools, and for the colourful dream-like costumes. Each character wore a different color so as to be more readily identifiable: the Informer in green, Poverty in grey, the Young Man in pink, the Old Woman in a multitude of pale shades. Mytaras also designed the production's masks, which were based on those of commedia dell'arte and intended to accentuate the players' own facial characteristics.

Christos Leontis's music was written specifically for the production, as was Yiorgis Yiatromanolakis' translation of Aristophanes' text. The actresses and actors gave magnificent performances and the production was one of the summer's best.

The Theatrical Organisation of Cyprus performed Aristophanes' Birds, directed by Evis Gavrielidis, on 20-21 August. The production was a mixture of different techniques and approaches which resulted in a spectacular overall presentation. A. Katsaris as Peisthetairos and S. Stavrinidis as Eulepides based their interpretation on comic tricks exploited by popular Greek comic actors of the sixties and seventies. The play also commented on the contemporary political situation and the relationship between Greece and Cyprus. The performance started with the sounds of patrol cars, traffic, and the screams of drivers, intended to indicate the city's refusal to accept those who could still escape to the world of fantasy. Later in the play, the light blue wooden scenery opened to reveal bird-artists able to 'fly high', and a heavenly city was constructed alone on the stage.

The State Theatre of Northern Greece also produced Birds for the 1994 Festival. The director was the well-known Andreas Voutsinas, whose approach to the field of ancient Greek theatre has always been interesting and provocative. For this production (27-28 August), he consciously avoided familiar techiques and methods. The cast was very young, the setting a city in 1900 with subdued lighting and period costumes to match. Starting from N. Sphyroera's translation, he avoided vulgar language and slang, keeping only the sexual jokes appropriate to the atmosphere of the performance. He built the production around Peisthetairos and his adventures and eliminated the choral ballet along with the wings and feathers. The production was critically acclaimed.

The last play to be performed at Epidavros in 1994 was Sir Peter Hall's version of Aristophanes' Lysistrata, on 3-4 September. The production premiered at London's Old Vic in May of 1993 and had also played in the Odeum of Herod Atticus in Athens on 11-12 August of that year. Dionysis Fotopoulos, a famous Greek scenographer, designed the set, the costumes, and the half-masks. The wooden wall at the back of the stage, fitted with numerous doors and a small window which looked onto the Acropolis under the moonlight, was emblazoned with the graffiti of a war-torn city. The slogans themselves made the impression even clearer. The women's dresses had a Victorian air, but their huge added breasts and buttocks made them look like plastic dolls at times. The director effected contemporary political satire through stylistic allusions to the theatrical agitprop of the 1920s and to Brecht. His interpretation allowed traditional music song, and choreograhy to be incorporated as well, creating a form which mixed the grotesque, political satire, entertainment, and debate as it parodied women's behaviour in England along with the men who run the military machine. This production, however, did not favor the women's cause.

All in all, the Festival of Epidavros once again proved its worth by bringing together some of the best of contemporary Greek and foreign productions of ancient Greek drama.

Katerina Arvaniti
University of Kent

(Katerina Arvaniti is a PhD student in Theatre Studies at the University of Kent, Canterbury.)