The theatre landscape in Greece is impressive. There are hundreds of productions in a single season. In fact, the season has no beginning and no end, and all kinds of venues are ready to welcome them; ranging from conventional theatres to alternative spaces, such as warehouses, bars, trains, museums, houses. In Athens alone, there are more than one hundred and fifty venues currently hosting theatre shows.
To put it in numbers: in 2013, 1,050 performances were presented in Athens alone. In 2014, the number was 1,447 and, in 2015, it reached 1,542 (according to the count made by a reputable cultural magazine). In 2016, as far as I can estimate, the number of shows exceeded 1,700.
Various questions arise from this period of theatrical productivity. Do we need so many productions? To whom are they addressed? What are the conditions of production in contemporary Greek theatre?
Along with two state houses (Athens’ National Theatre and Thessaloniki’s National Theatre of Northern Greece) there are sixteen municipal regional theatres; although most of them have failed to function properly. Almost all private theatrical activity occurs in the capital. Thessaloniki has about twenty venues, mainly hosting Athenian productions (with a few exceptions), while activity in the rest of the country is limited. Major private institutions, such as the Onassis Cultural Centre and the recently launched Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre (where the National Opera will be based from now on), have an influential role in the artistic life of the country. Yet, the weight of most of these productions is shouldered, mainly, by independent producers as well as numerous theatre groups and artists who are struggling for survival.
Private sponsorship in Greece is still in its infancy; there are insufficient rewards, so theatre is not considered an attractive investment. Since 2012, state grants for the theatre sector have been put on hold, and there has been no form of assistance or meaningful cultural policy for independent companies and theatres. However, there has been one notable change to this rule, which was the result of the country’s economic station and not of a general state policy. As recently as July 2017, Lydia Koniordou, the Minister of Culture, who is also an important director and actress—she recently made a guest appearance in Robert Wilson’s Luther Dancing with the Gods in Berlin (as part of the celebration of the five-hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther posting The Ninety-five Theses),— gave grants to independent theatre groups, thus providing an absolutely necessary impetus to the creators.
The financial situation of the country and the lack of money in the culture sector has had a negative impact upon both production standards and professional conditions for everyone working in the arts. To take one example, rather than receiving a contract and a monthly salary, artists are now paid a percentage of box office income. Ticket prices have been reduced; an average ticket costs ten to fifteen Euros. Whilst theatres still attract audiences, the Greek theatre community lacks a proper audience development programme. In the absence of stable, loyal audiences, most theatre producers are engaged in a constant search for an audience for their next show.
In Athens, one can find every theatre trend. Classics take the lead, although directors take very different approaches to the texts, ranging from conservative, or “classic,” stagings, to modern “readings,” with a deconstructionist tendency, and productions which are liberally inspired by the plays. Experimental theatre, performance/live art and the theatre of objects are gaining increasing space within the Athenian theatre. Musicals have invaded the Greek stage over the last fifteen years and have managed to form their own audience. Mamma Mia, Sweeney Todd, Cabaret and The Sound of Music were among the popular shows of last year. Jukebox musicals, dedicated to famous Greek singers and composers, are also in demand. As audiences seek an escape from the hard realities of life in Greece today, it is, perhaps, unsurprising that stage comedies are also proving popular.
Despite such trends, however, there is a still a vast audience seeking good “bourgeois” theatre with great texts (classic or modern), well-structured direction, impressive visual expression and poetic speech. It is worth mentioning four productions in particular: Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, directed by Aris Troupakis, at the Odou Keffalinias Theatre; the staging of A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Elena Scoti, at the Sychrono Theatre; The Reunification of the Two Koreas by Joël Pommerat, directed by one of Greece’s most important theatre directors, Nikos Mastorakis, at the Art Theatre Karolos Koun; and Heldenplatz by Thomas Bernhardt, given its first production in Greece by the talented, young director Dimitris Karantzas, at the Odou Kykladon Theatre.
In recent years, the staging of adaptations of important classical literary masterpieces has become a routine phenomenon, indicating the need of the people to tell or hear/see a story. Adaptations on stage have included works by Dostoyevsky and Kafka, as well as texts from the Greek classical canon; for example, a production based upon Homer’s Iliad by director Stathis Livathinos has toured in main festivals around the world. Notable stage works based upon Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, or upon versions of Vintsentzos Kornaros’s masterpiece, Erotokritos, to Alexandros Papadiamantis and Nikos Kazantzakis, made their presence strongly felt. One of the hits of recent Greek theatre is The Great Chimera, an adaptation of M. Karagatsis’ novel, created by his grandson, director Dimitris Tarlow, which premiered at the Athens Festival and ran at Poreia Theatre for three seasons. Niki, the bestselling novel by Christos Chomenides, adapted and nicely directed by Stamatis Fasoulis at Theatron in Athens, has also enjoyed considerable success.
The Great Chimera, an adaptation of M. Karagatsis’ novel, directed by his grandson Dimitris Tarlow,
premiered at the Athens Festival in 2016 and still runs at Theatro Poreia, Athens
Due to lack of money, many shows in the contemporary Greek repertoire are either works with limited cast or monodramas. One of the most notable was Auguste Korteau’s Katerina, directed by Yiorgos Nanouris, with Lena Papaligoura in the lead role.
Alcestis. Directed by Katerina Evangelatos. National Theatre, Epidaurus Festival
The theatrical highlight of the summer in Greece is, of course, the Epidaurus Festival, which is held annually, over a period of eight weeks, at the ancient site of Epidaurus. Dedicated to ancient Greek drama, it hosts productions of tragedy and comedy, most of which subsequently tour around the rest of the country. The most acclaimed production of the 2017 programme was Alcestis, from the National Theatre of Greece, a modern contemplation of Euripides’ tragicomedy, directed by prominent young director Katerina Evangelatos. Io Voulgaraki’s The Arrival also received deserved plaudits. Playing at the Little Theatre of Ancient Epidaurus, it deals with the meaning of the return of Odysseus, in which he returns to his “dream ghost.” We need also to mention the dynamic and poetic Medea (Little Theatre of Epidaurus) created by the young director Dimitris Karantzas, with an exclusively male cast, in which an important actor, Yiorgos Gallos, plays Medea.
A key—and rather explosive—issue for Greek theatre is how it receives and relates to contemporary international theatre activity. The Athens Festival has been crucial in this regard. Some ten years ago, it bridged the gap between the local and the international. The present artistic director, Vangelis Theodoropoulos, moves along the path opened by his predecessor, Yiorgos Loukos. Over the same period, the National Theatre of Greece has developed an international network and, under the directorial management of Stathis Livathinos, it has engaged in international collaborations and co-productions. Oedipus Rex, for example, was produced jointly with Moscow’s Vakhtangov Theatre. Created by Lithuanian director Rimas Tuminas, working in collaboration with Greek composer and director Thodoris Ampazis, the piece is performed by Greek and Russian actors, in both languages. It gained the admiration of Greek and Russian audiences in 2016, and it continues to tour in Europe. Recently, it gained the Turandot Award for best production in Russia.
Oedipus Rex, National Theatre, dir. Rimas Tuminas, Epidaurus Festival 2017
The Onassis Cultural Centre in Athens has played a very dynamic role since its opening, in 2010. It has followed two paths: namely, introducing productions and artists from abroad, and exporting Greek productions internationally through partnerships. For example, the acclaimed production Clean City started its journey at the Onassis Centre and is now on international tour. Directed by Anestis Azas and Prodromos Tsinikoris (currently artistic directors of the Experimental Stage of the National Theatre), it is a sensitive documentary theatre piece about migration and the situations migrants have to deal with.
One of the most important productions of 2017 is undoubtedly The Great Tamer, by the acclaimed choreographer Dimitris Papaioannou. Presented at the Onassis Centre, it is a visualized philosophical treatise, endowed with the beauty of bodies, the charm of the image, an excellent use of myth and a powerful connection with the present. Involving dialogue between works of art, it promotes the high aesthetics of minimalism.
The director Theo Terzopoulos, of Attis Theatre in Athens, has had a spectacular and uninterrupted international presence, with numerous important productions. His most recent production in Greece, Encore, is a reflection on Eros as an engine of life and death.
Modern Greek dramaturgy is currently in a period of creative uplift. It seeks its identity through the great legacy of national drama and its relation with the present. In so doing, the national theatre culture tries to absorb and reflect upon the social, political, cultural and economic realities of the country. One can find on Greek stages productions which reflect the realist genres of the 1960s and 1970s, postmodern/deconstructionist works, verbatim dramas, adaptations of fictional and non-fictional texts, dramatizations of real life events, experiments in contemporary forms and new ways of telling stories.
Contemporary life asks for new thematic orientations dealing with the questions that are hotly debated around the world; questions that touch upon issues of national identity, globalization, diversity, poverty, migration, sex trafficking, along with all-time-classic issues concerning the anxieties of human existence, such as love, relationships, alienation and power.
There is a growing and diverse movement within modern Greek dramaturgy that brings together older and younger playwrights. For example, one production that stood out in 2016 (and is still running) is Stella Violanti by Gregorios Xenopoulos, one of the most celebrated novelists and playwrights of the twentieth century. The play is staged by a young aspiring director Yiorgos Lyras, who works exclusively on Greek drama. Sleep, Stella, written and directed by Yiannis Economides for the National Theatre, a play that provoked and inspired the audience, has its distant origin to Xenopoulos’ play. It was written with creative input from the cast during rehearsals. Each performance was different because the dialogue combined the structured script with live improvisation created according to the rapport that existed between the actors and audience.
The renegotiation was also the subject of the contest organized by the Greek Play Project entitled “Write your Myth.” The play Eleni or Soula by Despoina Kalaitzidou, which won the prize, was directed by Yiorgos Lyras and performed by an exceptional actress, Evangelia Moumouri, at Stathmos Theatre, Athens.
Dimitris Dimitriadis and his word-oriented theatre continue to enjoy an immense popularity. In the most recent season, we saw seven productions of his plays. Likewise, the denunciatory writing of Lena Kitsopoulou and Vassilis Papavasileiou’s philosophical and critical theatre (with plays such as Relax MyNotis and Shihtir euro, budrum drachma, you will sing a song, both of which played at the Art Theatre, Athens). These works involve different approaches, different material and different voices, but they share the desire to express a very strong message in a rapidly transforming world.
Variety is an essential characteristic of contemporary Greek theatre. There is a creative mixture, with a diverse palette of themes, means of narration, means of expression and theatrical forms. In this context, a new type of dramaturgy also emerges, one which addresses existential issues through a political perspective.
What is the role of the theatre critic in the Greek theatrical environment? Unfortunately, theatre reviewing has lost its power. The reasons are obvious and many. First of all, the financial crisis expelled many critics from newspapers or forced them to write for free, lowering the quality of writing. Another reason is that websites have multiplied and many people share their opinions without really reviewing; online theatre coverage in Greece is much more a question of reportage or, often, of paid advertisement. The recently founded Hellenic Union of Theatre and Performing Arts Critics (which was established in 2016) aims to keep high standards, cultivate dialogue with artists and open up to the audience through parallel activities.
*Irene Mountraki is a dramaturg, theatre critic and creator of the Greek Play Project (www.greek-theatre.gr), a platform for contemporary Greek dramaturgy. She is the head of Drama, Library, Archive and International Relations Departments at the National Theatre of Greece. She teaches Theatre at Piraeus Society Drama School. She is on the board of the Hellenic Association of Theatre and Performing Arts Critics.