Author: Aeschylus. Direction: Dimiter Gotcheff. Stage Design and Costumes: Mark Lummert. Production: The National Theatre of Greece. Theatre Venue: Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus. Framework: The Hellenic Festival 2009.
Ever since its official opening some 56 years ago, the Festival held at the ancient theatre of Epidaurus has been the cause of numerous and quite often loud debates about its “proper” role: to whom should it cater and to what extent should the audience’s horizon of expectations be allowed to determine the kind of plays approved for production there? Should Epidaurus be open to all artistic trends and traditions (anything goes?) or should it be limited only to the revival of Greco-Roman theatre?
For the vast majority of theatregoers, Epidaurus is a “haunted” site, part of the collective memory and, as such, it has certain limits. It cannot be turned into a supermarket or a spectacular “shopping mall.” Nor, on the other hand, can it be switched into an exclusive, elitist site of innovations, which would be quite contrary to its original inception. When a theatre hosts a maximum of 11,500 viewers, it leaves not much room for experimentation, which by definition is anti-popular (or non-popular). Epidaurus, the argument goes, should be the meeting point of only outstanding Greco-Roman works—in other words, a meeting point of history and collective memory.
Lest there be no doubt: Of course there were landmark productions all these decades in this milieu de memoire, quality productions that garnered critical and (inter)national acclaim, establishing the Festival’s legacy as the leader in the field of classical drama. The problem is that the people in charge failed to keep up with the changes taking place inside the theatre itself and in the world in general. Thus, instead of maturing with the passing of time, they allowed the Festival to get older, more wrinkled and thus less inviting. It is only in the last few years that there has been a radical shift of priorities and perspective. The new administration that took over in 2005 felt that the Festival was in reality divorced from what was going on in the world, and that it mostly operated as if its sole responsibility was to prove again and again the grandeur of the classics through productions that were, at least most of them, re-stagings of “remembered” recipes. In the mind of the new administrators (under the artistic leadership of Yiorgos Loukos), what was needed was a new way to exploit the site’s potential to invigorate a re-examination of national (and theatre) identity and memory in relation to the global context without creating any kind of chauvinism. So the first thing they did was to introduce less rigid patterns with the hope of opening up the history/collective memory binary and thus make the Festival more hospitable to the new, the poly-vocal and the unexpected and thus a better player in the new European culture that is in the making. The decision was clear early enough: With the exception of the National and State Theatres, no one else would have access to the ancient site unless s/he had something original and fresh to propose. This bold move inevitably left out many artists and ensembles that for many years had showed up there irrespective of the quality of their current work. In the last three years, new names from the local and foreign scene have come to re-vitalize in their own way the prospects of the Festival with more cheeky, unpredictable and rowdy stage works that have met the warm approval of the young but also the scepticism or disapproval of the old-timers. Last year, Vasiliev’s deconstructive reading of Iphigheniacaused an uproar; and so did Peter Stein’s production of Electra the year before. This year it was the The Persians, directed by Dimiter Gotscheff, the famous Bulgarian director now living in Germany, who first staged the play for the Deutsches Theater in 2006 and won first prize as best production of the year. Not this time, though, with the production of the National Theatre of Greece.
The Persians (472 B.C) is set in Susa, immediately before and after word of the defeat at Salamis is carried to the ruling family. Its protagonists are King Xerxes, his mother Atossa, and the ghost of his father Darius (the first appearance of a ghost in extant drama). There is also a chorus of old men and a messenger (who has the privilege of delivering the first long messenger speech in extant tragedy, a thrilling and brilliant piece of work). Critical debate over the play has traditionally focused on whether it is truly a tragedy and whether it is sympathetic to the Persians or self-congratulating to the Athenians. This aside, it is the sort of play whose politics, although very difficult to re-construct, can still accommodate a lot of recent, familiar facts; and that explains its popularity among contemporary directors who usually turn to the play during or near a time of war. In 1993, Peter Sellars and his translator/adaptor, Robert Auletta, produced the play in order to criticize the Americans’ involvement in the war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Yet their decision to identify the victorious Athenians with the victorious Americans drew negative response, for it inverted, according to critics, the David-and-Goliath relationship of the original. Also, the imposition of a simplistic anti-Americanism onto a multi-layered classic found many critics very sceptical. As for the equation of the United States with fifth-century Greece trying to escape the vice of the vast Persian Empire, this also met general critical disapproval.
In similar fashion, Gotscheff on a bare stage with only a blueish wall at the back dismembered history to remember modern Iran/Persia and thus invite the sort of introspection on otherness, loss, theocracy, tyranny, citizenship and nationhood Aeschylus might have wished to encourage. He changed the all male chorus of the original with an all female chorus (seven in total) to show that women are those who suffer the most by the deeds of men—a reading that most critics turned down on the grounds that it could not be supported by the text, where the chorus (of wise old men) is not just a collective body that participates in the telling of the story or laments personal loss, but is also a collective body that participates in a game of power that excludes women. Also, virtually all disapproved of the director’s dramaturgical option to replace the Messenger by seven young actors in T-shirts, recalling Muslim rebels, and through them (and the female narrator) create a soundspace of words spoken as an independent unit (a technique inspired by Brecht and Heiner Müller) that slowed down the action’s tempo and re-inforced the play’s alienating effect (Sellars in his own production also attempted to create a similar effect by using an oud player). Their argument was that by veering off into territory almost alien to the text itself, the director stripped it bare of its inner rhythms and transformed it into a soulless, static mass. Some critics even went as far as to argue that Epidaurus is harmed by artists who, unaware of the history of performing the classics, show up with readings that are either obsolete, unfounded or too narcissistic to move a big crowd, let alone contribute to the ongoing dialogue between ancients and moderns.
The Persians is a very special play. It is not only the least dramatic play of all Greek tragedies but also the most difficult to mount. There is no basic conflict, no action at all; just information about a lost war by those who are defeated. The plot, in other words, is one of tragic discovery rather than tragic decision. To make his critique of contemporary theocratic fundamentalisms and imperialist wars more effective, Gotscheff overwrote the play’s version of history onto contemporary memories of war, tyranny and abuse of power. He shuttled back and forth between irony and tragedy, melodrama and farce in a recreated, clunky dramatic environment stripped off its elegiac tones, its swift and soaring poetry, a choice which in the mind of many viewers did not work because it took away the beauty of the play’s verse, weakened the power of its shifts from trochaic to iambic meter and dissolved its deliberate ambiguity, thus condemning it to a colorless and emotionless re-reading of the modern world.
Through the years, Gotscheff has repeatedly presented highly challenging and imaginative theatre and these reservations, sound as they are, at least some of them, do not erase the artistic value of his venture at Epidaurus. By re-inventing (and re-investing) the past in living memories, he showed how the interplay of history, memory and the present can take on many meanings and thus cause different reactions. Theatre has the ability to connect an audience with its present and its forbears; and I think Gotscheff’s reading deserves credit for trying to achieve just that without spoon-feeding its context to us; he deserves credit for provoking our imagination and personal associations; for trying to make us re-evaluate our position as audience members, to dig deeper into our own experiences, to remember and to relate. He deserves credit for exhibiting postmodernity’s inability to escape a history of wars and violence; in brief, for showing us once again that Aeschylus’ play is painfully contemporary even close to 25 centuries after its premiere.
As for the cast (a very talented group of mostly young people), they believed in their director’s thought-provoking vision and did their best to live up to it. They succeeded nobly.
 SAVAS PATSALIDIS is Professor of Theatre Theory and History at Aristotle University, Thessaloniki (Greece) and also a theatre reviewer. He is on the board of the Greek Association of Theatre Critics and is a member of the National Endowment for the Arts committee. He is the author of ten books on drama. His latest work is a two-volume study of American Theatre (University Studio Press).