Exodos. The Body Is the Oracle

Penelope Chatzidimitriou**

Attis Theatre, Exodos, a synthesis of Pythia’s oracles and monologues from Antigone, Medea and Alkestis, directed by Theodoros Terzopoulos, 18 July 2020, Delphi, Greece.

Pythia performed by Sophia Hill. Photο: Katerina Tzigotzidou

In our COVID-19 reality, is theatre still necessary? In the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic in July 2020, the European Cultural Centre of Delphi cooperated with the Greek theatre director Theodoros Terzopoulos and the local Ephorate of Antiquities of Phokis to organize its first live event of the COVID era. Entitled Exodos (the final, concluding scene in ancient Greek tragedy but also exit in modern Greek), the event signified the exit from a reality that seems to be reaching a tragic end while heading towards a new era. The main event of this two day meeting was a performance, also entitled Exodos, in the open-air archaeological site of Delphi, directed by Theodoros Terzopoulos. Terzopoulos’ muse, Sophia Hill, the actress that Michael Billington in his review of Nora (2020) described as “one of the world’s great actors . . . a feline Billie Whitelaw.” (see also my review of Nora), gave a solo performance based on oracles by Pythia, the High Priestess of Delphi in antiquity, and three monologues from the tragedies of Medea, Alkestis and Antigone.

Medea performed by Sophia Hill. Photo: Johanna Weber

Exodos is more than a remarkable performance of ancient Greek drama. It is the stage manifesto of an internationally acclaimed director for a New Theatre in our New Age. It is his response to the questions that the virus has posed, firstly about humankind and inevitably about theatre as an aesthetic and communal live event. Exodos is the living declaration and evidence that the Oracle is still the body. For Terzopoulos, the Sacred Way that humankind and theatre alike should take always goes through the body and the senses, the sensual body: Doric bodies, like that of Sophia Hill in the Temple of Apollo, in harmony with nature, in an open dialogue with the miraculous but also the ruins of civilization, the latter’s triumphs and traumas. Bodies open to the prospect of meeting the Other, thus bodies open to metamorphosis. Bodies dressed in their vibrating and pulsating physicality and—in Sophia Hill’s case—also dressed in impressive, sober costumes and fabrics (designed by the distinguished Greek fashion designer Lukia, one of Terzopoulos’ close collaborators in recent years). Their folds and flows extended the performing body to the lines, motions and transfigurations of the majestic, natural landscape at dusk. They also made it part of the imposing archaeological landscape, granting it equally monumental status among the colonnades of the Temple of Apollo.

Alkestis performed by Sophia Hill. Photo: Katerina Tzigotzidou

Wisely, the chosen monologues of Medea, Alkestis and Antigone did not directly comment on our global pandemic drama but showed us the way to see the present and what is to come. It is the performance of Sophia Hill, this prima donna of contemporary Greek theatre, which has made that possible. Her tragic voice and speech, “unadorned” and “unperfumed,” as Heraclitus would say of Sibylla’s chants of numinous spells (Fragment 92), discarded all conventional tragic ornaments and archaic pomposity. On the contrary, it was deeply visceral and for that massively human. As early as the mid-1980s, Terzopoulos bridged the gap between animal and man with his acting method, lifting the boundary between the two to foreground the absolute alterity of the human condition, its animality. His method, the method of Dionysus, has always been a way of finding the animal in us, nature in us, our ecstatic “other.” This is an aesthetic choice with ontological and moral repercussions. It sees multiculturalism as biodiversity; it embraces Otherness exactly because the “Other” differs from us (Aloi 23). In such ways, an acting method, that of Terzopoulos, can become a technique for cultural change.

Antigone performed by Sophia Hill. Photo: Johanna Weber

In the performance, Sophia Hill’s diverse vocal score of volumes, frequencies and tones transformed the tragic words variously into an ecstatic bee buzzing, a volcanic eruption or speaking waters (Pythia’s lalon ydor) springing from the depths of the oracular body. Like the sacred waters of the Castalian spring in ancient Delphi, it purged us of the psychological and mental burden of our days in lockdown. And this is not a mere figure of speech. Hill’s voice created a world of its own, an extra-ordinary space and time; extra-ordinary but, at the same time, so natural because it was physical, blending with the ceaseless sound of summer cicadas and the echoes from the Phaiedriades Rocks around. In this shared temporality and spatiality created by Hill’s breath, voice and body, we grieved in our crisis. But we also emerged from our lockdown isolation to join together in a renewed, cathartic sense of a community that is united in the face of a shared destiny and a shared responsibility for the biological lives of others and nature itself.

The audience applauds. Terzopoulos foregrounds theatre as a live communal experience. Photo: Johanna Weber

Upon our exit from the archaeological site of Delphi, we had already become aware that in both classical tragedy and our present historical tragedy, exodos is not a running away option but a time of reflection and realization that nature is not only outside but within us, each one of us carrying a small part of nature inside our bodies. With this stage manifesto, Terzopoulos confirmed that the live (performing) body is the Sacred Way that theatre should take if it wants to develop crucial techniques for cultural change today and coordinate all that is of its house (oikos) with that of the city (demos). Even if that implies the end of the director’s omnipotence and the end of stage narcissism.

Works Cited

Aloi, Giovanni. “Animal Studies and Art: Elephants in the Room.” Editorial. Antennae, March 2015.

Billington, Michael. “Triumph from Tragedy: How Greece’s Theatre Roared out of a National Crisis.” Review of Nora, directed by Theodoros Terzopoulos. The Guardian, 2 Mar. 2020.

Chatzidimitriou, Penelope. “Nora. The Big Exit.” Review of Nora, directed by Theodoros Terzopoulos. Critical Stages/Scénes Critique, no. 21, June 2020.

Heraclitus. Fragments. Translated by T. M. Robinson, U of Toronto P, 1987.

Terzopoulos, Theodoros. “The Artist in Times of Crisis. Interview with Theodoros Terzopoulos.” Interview by Penelope Chatzidimitriou. Critical Stages/ Scénes Critique, no 15, June 2017. 


*Penelope Chatzidimitriou (MA in Theatre Studies, Royal Holloway University of London; PhD in Theatre Studies, School of English, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki). Doctoral research in the complete opus of the internationally acclaimed Greek theatre director Theodoros Terzopoulos; collaboration with Attis Theatre (Athens) as a scholar; interest in modern directors, performance and performance art. In 2010, she published (in Greek) her book on the work of Terzopoulos. Other articles have appeared in editions of Bloomsbury Methuen DramaChina Theatre PressCambridge Scholars PublishingTheatre der Zeit, etc. She lives and works in Thessaloniki as a theatre lecturer and critic.

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