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I saw Epidaurus in Polykastro

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I saw Epidaurus in Polykastro. It had snowed, a door was rattling in the wind and a light was shining from afar. I followed it without thinking and found myself before Epidaurus. I saw it open like an embrace on the banks of the river Axios, all white and glowing. I was about to say ‘This is the Balkans’ and ‘What were you doing…’ but I held my tongue, as I realized I wasn’t alone. Lots of people on its tiers.

In the lower rows, the ones closer to me, I saw George Seferis next to St. Chrysostomos of Smyrna. Directly opposite them Odysseus Elytis was hanging out with Governor Kapodistrias. All four of them were looking towards me stern-faced, with perhaps the exception of a somewhat smiling Kapodistrias. In the row above Seferis, Pericles, wearing his famous helmet, was gazing at Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos, who stood valiantly above Kapodistrias. I greeted them all kindly and turned my gaze to the theatre’s orchestra.

There, Socrates, just the way I remembered him from David’s painting, was bidding his pupils farewell with the hemlock cup in his hands. His raised index finger pointed my eyes in the direction of the sky above the orchestra, where three fireballs hovered. They looked as if they were drawn from Byzantine icons. The central one contained the Three Holy Hierarchs. Flanking them, on the one side, St. Helena and St. Constantine the Great and, on the other side, Saints Cyril and Methodius. I hastily took a picture, bought a chocolate and exited the Army Recreation Centre.

Murals of that kind are to be found everywhere in the army. Common themes: Alexander the Great and Leonidas together with Evzones, all surrounded by present-day tanks; the Parthenon with Christ on its top; the church of Hagia Sophia without its added minarets, and the Virgin Mary sheltering persons and symbols of a ‘holistic’ Hellenism. In the army camp of Polykastro, Epidaurus poses no exception. It becomes the monumental meeting place between Classical Antiquity and Byzantium (!), a landmark in the foundation and propagation of the Orthodox faith (!) and, consequently, the formulation of the Modern Greek mythos. Theatre is, of course, out of the question. Besides, theatre is sinful, according to St. John Chrysostom -regardless of his hovering inside a fireball at the centre of the composition.

It took sometime before I saw Epidaurus again. This time in its original place. It was raining and we were all with umbrellas and raincoats. Before I walked in I took a quick peek at the picture I had taken in the camp. Thank goodness, I thought, I’ve been spared; I took a seat in the theatre and I glanced around. No Emperor Palaiologos, no Pericles, no St. Chrysostomos of Smyrna. Only that the orchestra contained something like a garden table with chairs and the frame of a house with neon lights. And a kitchen sink and bench with stools and a blender. There was also a video projection with a man in a car. Suddenly this man arrived right behind the stage in the actual car of the video. And there was this woman making smoothies too. Then other people came and went, some of them carrying cameras and finally someone raised a kitchen knife, but we didn’t see him again. Then an ambulance drove in, an actual ambulance with its rotating beacon and some carers with a stretcher got out. Oh, I forgot, people were drinking tsipouro earlier and they were talking about baklava and Mavrodaphne.

Naturally, I am referring to the recent premiere of Maja Zade’s play Oedipus, which intentionally distorts the character of tragedy as we know it. We are situated in an utterly demystified present, where all the components of Oedipus Rex find their way into a ‘contemporary’ equivalent: the king becomes an executive, the carriage becomes a truck, Thebans become Berliners, the miasma becomes an environmental pollution. Dance and song are absent, catharsis (but not catastrophe) in the Aristotelian sense is undermined. A lot of effort goes into presenting a ‘reality’ -this is what the meticulous props and set design (tables, chairs, blender, fruit, tsipouro, cars) are brimming with- and indeed Thomas Ostermeier’s direction leaves no room for idealization.

In other words, can the audience be ‘trained’ by the artists or does it always set its own fixed, inescapable rules of the artistic experience?

And yet, on the way out of the theatre that night, many of us were complaining: ‘So, this guy abandoned a flaming truck with its driver without ever getting caught?’, ‘Yeah, so he had this necklace all the while but she never noticed’, ‘Were they really going to kill each other with a kitchen knife?’. Most people’s objections were aimed against this sense of too much ‘reality’. But wasn’t that exactly the point? Besides, the director had said it himself in a recent interview, adapting the famous Nietzschean maxim, that ‘the sky is empty, there are no gods anymore’. Why, then, were we expecting to enjoy ‘the magnificent art of tragedy’ in all its mythical -if not metaphysical- extensions? I couldn’t help but think: ‘Is this Polykastro all over again, but on the flip side?’

It goes without saying that the audience of the Army Recreation Centre of Polykastro is different to the one of the Schaubühne, and the condition of an artistic event is only schematically attributed to the experience of the former. The intention is always there, though. The creator of the mural is directing a national mythos, ‘blended yet legal’, as it were, in order to address it to the Greek soldier. The ideological field is clear: Greece is a unified, transcendent and indivisible cradle of philosophy, poetry and Orthodoxy. Its greatness is beyond space and time, it can only be manifested within an equally transcendent space, that is Epidaurus. On the other hand, Oedipus belongs to a specific time and space, exclusively contemporary, exclusively Western European, foreign to its ancient surroundings. No fairytales to be told here. Here the actors become agents of demystification. They contribute toward a philosophical outlook which is smaller than or equal to -but never larger than- life.

In Poetics, there is mention of the dramatic poet’s capability of representing ‘one of three things -either things as they were or are; or things as they are said and seem to be; or things as they should be.’ (1460b, tr. W. H. Fyfe). Epidaurus’s life constitutes a constant oscillation between these three modes. The first one (‘how things are’) relates to the perpetual, elusive hope of an art taking place only here and only now. The second (‘things as they are said and seem to be’) and third one (‘things as they should be’) manifest the connection of art with its times. They also highlight the interdependence of artistic intention and audience expectation. In other words, can the audience be ‘trained’ by the artists or does it always set its own fixed, inescapable rules of the artistic experience?

I have seen both the one Epidaurus and the other; so different to one another, so deviant. My aim is neither to scorn nor to vindicate. I always return to that person in the audience, since all ideological and artistic intent is both addressed to and stemming from them. It works both ways and hopefully the moment comes when, having left the theatre (that is the Army Recreation Centre), one measures what they saw and heard. I say ‘hopefully’ because otherwise one has no part left than that of a mute native observing the heavy gesticulations of the overseas explorers or the indigenous pundits.


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