Re-visiting Greek National Narrative through Devised Theatre Practices: The Case of Michael Marmarinos

Constantina Ziropoulou*

Abstract

Director and actor Michael Marmarinos is an iconic figure of the avant-garde Greek theatre of recent decades. One of the most prominent Greek theatre directors active since the 1980s, Marmarinos has been associated with subversive performances of ancient Greek and classical European drama. As a director, he has also worked with Noh theatre, modern and contemporary Greek and international theatre and is renowned for his devised theatre works. Marmarinos’ artistic contributions in devised theatre have been particularly noteworthy, both because he was the first Greek director to reject the notion of the author as authority, foregrounding devising techniques and creating theatrical texts by means of a collective method, and because his performances utilize a distinctive, highly original stage style, especially by Greek standards. The present paper focuses on Marmarinos’ devised performances, National Anthem, A Theorem About Togetherness (2002), 2004-Olympic Games, Instructions Manual (2005), Hairdressers/Metapolitefsi (2020), expounding the reasons these performances constituted a type of powerful intervention in Greek theatre, in terms of both stage practice and themes and ideological content. 

Keywords: Michael Marmarinos, devised theatre, Greek theatre, national narrative, Chorus, improvisation

The Context
The Place of the Devised Theatre in the Greek Theatrical Landscape

Devised theatre (theatro tis epinoesis in Greek) has appeared more recently in Greece as compared to other countries. Whereas devised practice was already widespread in several European countries by the 1960s, in Greece this type of theatre first appeared in the early 1990s, becoming more popular at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Director Michael Marmarinos. Photo: Web

Due to a number of historical and social parameters, theatrical experimentations dealing with the “here and now” of society and attempting to address questions of the postmodern world could not take hold in Greece during an earlier era. Thus, for several decades, modern Greek theatre remained attached to its realist origins and to a purely text-centered approach. The accession of Greece to the European Community in 1981, combined with the improved economic, social and political status of the country, led to the establishment of state subsidies for theatres and an increase in the number of theatre companies, stages and drama schools, bringing Greek artists closer to their counterparts in other parts of Europe. All the above led to the emergence of an alternative theatre in Greece, mirroring respective aesthetic trends in Europe at the time (Patsalidis and Stavrakopoulou 10–12; Sidiropoulou 121; Hager-Fragkou 140; Tsatsoulis, Signs of Writing 43–94).

As compared to Europe and the United States, where devised theatre emerged in a very specific sociopolitical context, with the strong politicization of society and the defense of the rights of collectivities (Oddey 2; Heddon and Milling 96), in Greece these acutely political, radical and activist tendencies were noticeably absent. In particular, devised theatre in Greece appeared during a period of ostensible economic stability, introduced primarily as a form of onstage experimentation and a response of smaller theatre companies and a new generation of artists to the mainstream theatre of great leading actors, famous directors and high-budget productions that were more commercial commodity and less artistic performance.

Michael Marmarinos’ Artistic Identity

Michael Marmarinos (b. 1956) studied acting, directing and biology, specializing in neurobiology. Through Marmarinos’ initiative, the Diplous Eros theatre company was founded in 1984, with productions directed by Marmarinos. The repertoire included plays by Strindberg, Heiner Müller, Botho Strauss and Greek writer Georgios Veltsos. Already in these early performances, audiences and critics alike were intrigued. In 1997, the Diplous Eros company, renamed Theseum Ensemble, was housed in an imposing, stone building in an underground area in downtown Athens and gradually became a hub of cultural activity.

Actors Amalia Moutousi and Rena Andreadaki, journalist Eleni Petasi and musician Dimitris Kamarotos were among the founding members of the company, and actors were hired according to the needs of each performance. In contrast to devised groups outside of Greece, particularly during the early phases when artists lived in a communal environment and sought equal opportunities in both art and life (Berghaus, 14–18), in the case of the Theseum Ensemble company, Marmarinos was the main guiding force behind the entire endeavor, a project that ultimately bears the hallmarks of its creator.

Overseeing his company, subsidized by the Hellenic Ministry of Culture for many years, Marmarinos directed a number of performances which encompassed a rich canon of both classical and contemporary plays. Although his postmodern aesthetics developed gradually over time, his alternative vision was already apparent in his first directorial works. Many of his performances, including devised productions, were highly acclaimed in Greece as well as at international festivals around the world, in countries such as Austria, Belgium, Venezuela, France, Germany, Georgia, Spain, Italy, South Korea, Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Serbia, to name but a few.

Marmarinos has also worked with the National Theatre of Greece and other state institutions, both as an actor and director, and several of his performances have been presented at the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus and other ancient theatres. He currently holds the position of Associate Professor, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, and also serves as Artistic Director of the 2023 Elevsis European Capital of Culture.

While Marmarinos has employed devising methods in several of his performances, the following three productions have been cited as exemplars of the genre: National Anthem, a Theorem About Togetherness (2002), 2004-Olympic Games, An Invitation to Dance (2005), and the recent Hairdressers / Metapolitefsi [Post-Re-Democratization Era], Jiang-sin-bi-sin/imagine my heart as yours (2020). As will be explained in this paper, these performances, although originally performed at different times, are closely connected by a common theme that is linked to issues of national narrative.

National Anthem, a Theorem About Togetherness (2002)

Marmarinos was the first director in Greece to follow systematically the practice of devising. In such an approach, the stage text is predicated upon a basic theme or starting point enriched with material drawn from research, interviews, literary texts, songs, photos, videos, newspaper documents, fragments of complex art and pop culture; views of the company members are integrated through the inclusion of their reflections, narratives, memories, and other personal concerns.

National Hymn, Thission Theatre, 2001. Photo: Courtesy of Michael Marmarinos

The staging of National Anthem is a milestone in Marmarinos’ artistic career and contemporary Greek theatre overall, insofar as it introduced numerous experimental elements and abolished established theatrical conventions. The text itself encompassed several features of post-dramatic theatre (Tsatsoulis, “The End of Grand Narratives” 156; Patsalidis 27). The fragmentation of meaning, the collage of words and stories, the rejection of linear narratives, the fusion of disparate elements, the constant expansion of action and the lack of closure are all discernible in this work.

In National Anthem, the physical distance between the stage and the stalls is removed; the audience find themselves on stage, seated around large tables arranged in the shape of the Greek letter pi, eating chickpea soup and drinking wine as the actors served them. This practice, although already widely used abroad (Stourna 14–16), introduced deipnography (the transformation of the stage into a supper) in Greek theatre, thus transforming the audience into an object of gaze, a spectacle, while simultaneously enhancing communication with other spectators and incorporating theatre into the very fabric of reality.

National Hymn, Thission Theatre, 2001. Photo: Courtesy of Michael Marmarinos

The subtitle of the performance, A Theorem About Togetherness, carries further implications insofar as the theatrical, represented by the actors, and the social, represented by the audience, are coreferential and thus form a collective chorus. Significantly, the director aimed to create a chorus distinct from the chorus of ancient tragedy, borrowing elements of postmodernity to focus on a society comprised of individualities (Tsitsiridis 45).

Accordingly, at the end of a performance, actors invite the audience to dance with them, jointly building a collective body that represents the body politic of a city or nation. The prevailing festive mood generates a sense of togetherness, of belonging together experimentally, and it questions established ways of consolidating a sense togetherness, such as a performance of the national anthem (Zaroulia, “Cosmopolitanism” 377). In this way, the national anthem is visualized and takes on physical proportions as a symbol that reinforces the bonds among the members of a community (2014: 206).

The basis of National Anthem rests on empirical data from a questionnaire survey, gathered from among the cast by Marmarinos, and interview data from mostly anonymous individuals collected by the actors. During rehearsals, the basic material is further enriched with numerous Greek and foreign literary sources, thereby accentuating the intertextuality of the performance (Frantzi 637–38). The main performers include six actors, a journalist who asks questions constantly, and a DJ who intervenes in the main events; collectively, they participate in an unexpected game that pushes the limits of theatricality. The performance features dancing, singing and the performers’ spontaneous expression and physicality, which suggests their emotional states. The actors do not imitate, nor do they portray roles; instead, they offer themselves on stage, serving more as narrators. This aspect of the performance is central to post-dramatic theatre (Lehmann 109) and is reminiscent of Brecht’s distancing effect.

National Hymn, Thission Theatre, 2001. Photo: Courtesy of Michael Marmarinos

National Anthem raises questions about nation, identity, patriotism and the significance of the relationship between modern Greece and the national anthem as an emblem of identity. The anthem is utilized as a supreme myth, insofar as it recalls experiences for everyone, while also problematizing the concept of nation and the importance and function of equivalent emblems in today’s multicultural world. Drawn from testimonies and the company’s collected material, the text both reaffirms and deconstructs the national symbol, as it is linked invariably with personal experience of a diverse community. For some individuals, the national anthem is a simple song or a deception; for others, it constitutes a product of violence and power (National Anthem 69–75). Clearly, the director is aware of a need to revisit Greek identity in a seemingly prosperous period which has retroactively proven to be illusive. Notably during this period, Greece experienced a great influx of migrants for the first time in its modern history, as its population until that point had been largely homogeneous in terms of language and religion.

Indeed, the role of the national anthem as a symbol of national identity is challenged in the performance, yet the concept of nation itself is also called into question. That is, the main question raised by the performance is the following: What is the new meaning that could be generated nowadays by the basic idea behind the symbol?

A: A few years from now nations may not exist anymore. Should an anthem be composed in the future, it would have to bring together the Chinese people and the Brazilians, the woman next door to me, the community of citizens who should all have an equal voice, all standing united against the unjust events unfolding in the world as we speak.

National Anthem 83

Although the performance employs the national anthem as a starting point, the self-referential dimension of the production is made explicit through relevant questions, thoughts and concerns regarding narration, actors, audience participation and theatricality; this self-reflexivity pervades all of Marmarinos’ devised theatre performances.  For example, What is theatrical writing for a group of contemporary people as it evolves through the rehearsal process? What is the relationship between the theatre and the city? . . . How is reality (re)written through acting?” (National Anthem 33)

National Hymn in Seoul directed by Michael Marmarinos (2006)
2004 – Olympic Games, Instructions Manual (2005)

“Man is always in limbo, between two chronologies: the Before, 2004, is History; the After 2005, is science fiction. Man is elevated somewhere between” (21).

The year 2004, the year of the Athens Summer Olympics, was indubitably a landmark in modern Greek history which clearly moved Marmarinos: “I came up with the idea of a devised performance inspired by this event after the end of the Games, when the afterparty, a post-festive sense of melancholy, of something lacking, sought a continuation of sorts: ‘And now what?’” (Kathimerini)

Drawing inspiration from the world-class event of the Athens Summer Olympics, Marmarinos’ devised performance 2004Olympic Games, Instructions Manual, premiering a year later (2005), shares many common features with National Anthem, in terms of the questions raised by the text as well as the stage style.

Acutely aware of socio-historical developments, the perspicacious director raises from the outset numerous issues regarding the post-Olympics era in Greece, the expectations of modern Greeks about their lives and their self-image and national consciousness. There can be no question that Greek people were initially moved and excited by the fact their country hosted the Summer Olympics, a momentous occasion that rekindled National Memory and the echoes of a glorious past. The organization was quite successful, boosting the country’s morale, glamor and prestige, though this upward shift was not meant to last long. In the context of the global economic recession, a.k.a. the Great Recession, the huge cost of the Olympics, much higher than the initial projections, contributed to a prolonged and unprecedented economic crisis with enormous consequences for Greek society, as was apparent years later. Marmarinos’ performance raised questions about the false image that citizens may harbor of their own country and the gap between illusion and reality. The text, assembled through questionnaires, interviews of Olympic athletes and audiences, newspaper articles and personal diaries kept by actors touches on several issues inspired by the Summer Olympics, chief among which were the value of competitive sports, the performance anxiety of top-class athletes, rewards and the interpretation of glory and accolades. 

Olympic Games, Instructions Manual, directed by Michael Marmarinos (2005)

A major part of the performance is also dedicated to the practice of volunteering. Thus, the play features the voice of amateurs and others who personally witnessed the events leading up to the Olympic competitions and were invited to participate in the production of the play. More specifically, a chorus of volunteers from the 2004 Olympics become performers, thus offering a straightforward and authentic version of their lived experience. Volunteers find themselves in the center, queried by the cast about their motives for volunteering in the Olympics. Their stated reasons range from curiosity, a need to socialize, a love for one’s country and national pride, to feeling compelled to become a part of history, even in the form of a footnote, and to accept an opportunity to become a hero: “History reveals a hero that doesn’t need heroic attributes” (16).The dialogue between actors and volunteers leads to new questions on the meaning of service and collective action for both individuals and society at large.

This performance is also pointedly self-referential and serves as a starting point for an exploration of physicality. Information about the human body and its functions as well as its responses to the laws of gravity are presented. The Olympic Games and the notion of competitive sports is a springboard which allows actors to test the limits of their physical tolerance. The appearance of strained bodies moving and running fills the stage as performers complete balance exercises and identify with athletes, sharing in their glory. An actor pushes his limits as he runs intensely for a few minutes; an actress raises her shirt, displaying changes in her body and her physical responses to panting and rapid breathing.

The performance is noted for its interactive quality that engages both spectators and actors. Audiences sit at circular tables and drink tea while actors move between them or sit next to them and address them directly. The action unfolds simultaneously on many different parts of the stage, allowing the audience to focus on whatever interests them most. The absence of theatrical illusion is noteworthy in this performance, as the actors remain on stage throughout the interval and participate in discussions with the audience. After the interval is finished, the actors set up the stage once again and carry all props themselves. Overall, the performance stands out for its unpredictable and unplanned interventions, suggesting an event firmly set in the present with no possibility of repetition (Tsatsoulis, “Can a Performance Legislate?”). Various scenes from the Summer Olympics are constantly replayed on a screen, serving as a complementary commentary on the main action and establishing a constant dialogue between lived reality and the theatrical observation of this reality, between the onstage actions and the video art, and even between various subgroups in the audience, such as those viewing the sports matches, the actors, or both the actors and the athletes.

Hairdressers/Metapolitefsi [Post-Re-Democratization Era], Jiang-sin-bi-sin/ imagine my heart as yours

Premiering in January 2020, just a few months before the closure of all performing venues due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this production marked Marmarinos’ return to the Thission Theatre. The director’s approach to the historical context of Metapolitefsi and his use of various postmodern stage practices drew considerable critical attention. The performance effectively encapsulates the country’s economic and social crisis; the text, formed through devised theatre practices, formulates certainties instead of raising questions, unlike Marmarinos’ two previous productions, and thus responds to adverse conditions which had already developed by this point.

It should be noted here these same certainties are palpable in the iconic stage adaptation of Dimitris Dimitriadis’ novella I’m Dying as a Country, directed by Marmarinos in 2008, where heroines of various ages described the end of the country and the terrifying culmination of an entire era. The performance detailed the struggles of a country enveloped in a crisis, prompted not only by external factors, but primarily by prevailing and rampant domestic corruption.

The so-called Metapolitefsi refers to a period of modern Greek history, beginning with the fall of the seven-year military junta (1967–74), the restoration of democracy and the transformation of Greece to a unitary parliamentary republic. This period is marked by crucial social changes, claims of rights and freedoms already established in Europe, and the restructuring of political life with the major political parties dominating the field. Whether or not this period has ended, and if so, what marks its end, is still subject to debate. What is certain is that the first period of Metapolitefsi saw a drop in social inequality, the increase of consumerism and the gradual rise of prosperity—a prosperity that was proven to be illusory during the 2008 fiscal crisis. This interpretation is suggested in the following excerpt of the performance Hairdressers/Metapolitefsi:

This whole thing with the Metapolitefsi was a bit like rain. One day, the sky just split in half and started raining down things […] ‘I am Metapolitefsi, bearing gifts for you.’ And the other guy says: ‘It’s not Christmas time yet.’ ‘No, it is Christmas time!’ By force!

Hairdressers/Metapolitefsi 60

The false sense of prosperity is also shrewdly conveyed in the scenery: many half-empty glasses are placed on a large iron table, glasses that were once used at a party, long since finished, although its vestiges are still present to tell the story. The image represents ironically the predominant mentality of the initial Metapolitefsi period which still prevails in political attitudes, relationships, aesthetics, music and even fashion, regardless of major changes which have affected all levels of society. In fact, according to the text of the program distributed at the performance, this work deals with the “topicality of the past” (Hairdressers/Metapolitefsi 3). This is precisely why the text emphasizes everybody’s responsibility vis-à-vis history. A critique of the mistakes of the past that led the country to its current predicament is also implied—“We must go back! Where we took a wrong turn!” (Hairdressers / Metapolitefsi 22).

Hairdressers/Metapolitefsi, Thission Theatre, 2020. Photo: Courtesy of Michael Marmarinos

The performance presents an assemblage of fragmented memories which allude to the Metapolitefsi period. References are made to major events in Greece and the world, such as the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the World Trade Center, but also to trivial, personal experiences from that same period, often depicted with humor and irony. Major figures of the Metapolitefsi period are also featured, such as Konstantinos Karamanlis, Andreas Papandreou, Melina Mercouri, Maria Callas, Mikis Theodorakis and even Mikhail Gorbachev, as they are projected throughout the performance via the actors’ mobile phones on two walls facing each other. The narratives unfold to the sounds of songs, also from that same period, a mixture of numerous art forms, such as poetry set to music, revolutionary songs and popular hits, thereby utilizing the post-modern text type of pastiche (Carlson 146). 

The representation of historical events as a universal, collective history is masterfully intertwined with images of individual history and personal experience, thus undermining official history and emphasizing micro-histories and folk histories whereby individuality is not erased through historical processes (Iggers 134–55; Muir-Ruggiero). In Marmarinos’ performance, this continuous prioritizing of micro-history over official history echoes postmodern beliefs about the abolition of grand narratives and the promotion of smaller, incidental and experiential narratives, as it questions the privileged status of universally or widely appealing scientific discourse (Lyotard 56).

Hairdressers/Metapolitefsi, Thission Theatre, 2020. Photo: Courtesy of Michael Marmarinos

More importantly, Marmarinos’ theatre oscillates between the individual and the collective. According to the director, the very title of the performance encapsulates this contrast as it is both imaginative and ironic. As Marmarinos has noted, on the one hand, the notion of collectivity is depicted by the hair salon setting; on the other hand, Confucius’ phrase Jiang-sin-bi-sin (“imagine my heart as yours”) suggests individuality and personal experience, without which history is incomplete and lacking (Marmarinos 12).

Marmarinos preferred to work with young actors who lacked first-hand experience of the transition from the military junta to the restoration of democracy, whose opinions about this period were shaped by narratives that were bequeathed to them. As such, disparate memories are woven together, raising questions about contemporary interpretations and perceptions of history which are shaped by personal needs and ideological beliefs, and draw on the present to reconstruct the past. This rationale is also captured in the text. At some point, an actor wonders: “X: Is it out of the question that everything is a lie? Everything is photoshopped. Our parents have made an agreement with each other to guilt-trip us” (Hairdressers/Metapolitefsi 57). In other words, the text asks what counts as history in today’s world, such as a figment, a fictional construct or a historical narrative enriched with fictional elements, as Hayden White observes (82).

Hairdressers/Metapolitefsi, Thission Theatre, 2020. Photo: Courtesy of Michael Marmarinos

Therefore, the actors in Marmarinos’ performance serve as arbiters between lived experience of the past and the present, bridging the gap between the past, their selves, and audiences. Their bodies are reimagined as an official site of experience, a place wherein history is inscribed, representing others who are absent. Even though the actors lack first-hand experience of the events, they are emotionally affected by the testimonies of others, reserving “the inner gift of being afflicted by facts in a way that it is difficult for an outsider to be afflicted” (Marmarinos 13). In other words, in Marmarinos’ theatre, narratives become, among other things, a medium for exploring the limits of theatricality (Tsitsiridis 44).

Multiple temporalities are interwoven in the performance. The past and the present continuously interact through references to temporally and spatially heterogeneous historical events under a guise of historicity (Arfara 368). Not only does the performance call into question the temporal boundaries of the Metapolitefsi period, but it also questions the very nature of time, assuming the proportions of a philosophical meditation (Hairdressers/Metapolitefsi 58).

Hairdressers/Metapolitefsi directed by Michael Marmarinos (2020)
Conclusions

Although Michael Marmarinos is an eccentric and provocative figure of the Greek theatre community, his performances have been largely well received by critics and audiences alike. His stage practice, pioneering by Greek standards, was initially received with hesitation, yet he currently enjoys a large following who have supported each of his new projects.

Adopting the techniques of devised theatre and incorporating numerous postmodern elements in his performances, Marmarinos has honed his distinctive, singular stage style which retains certain recognizable features. As demonstrated in the foregoing analysis, these features include an alternative scenography built upon a close proximity of audiences and actors, an actively involved audience, actors who narrate rather than portray characters as they interpret an improvisational device, a text or event, and a director who helps the performers capture a crucial photographic snapshot amid the quasi-randomness. The end product is thus intensely experiential, like documentary (Tsitsiridis 46), and emphasizes the actors’ physicality and improvisation. Other defining features of his oeuvre include the reinvention of the chorus, which differs from that of ancient tragedy in that it utilizes a contemporary collectivity, the incorporation of social reality in the theatrical performance and the exploration of the limits of theatricality in all his performances.

Regarding the devised performance described above, once could argue that Marmarinos utilized a specific theme as a starting point and then raised additional questions. However, in all three performances universal history intersects with individuality, and official history is intertwined with micro-history. For example, National Anthem poses questions about the meaning of nation and national identity, while 2004 tackles the self-image of modern Greeks through the lens of the lived experience of the Athens Summer Olympics.

Finally, in his recent performance Hairdressers/Metapolitefsi, Marmarinos draws on past and recent history in order to face the present social order, to explore the consequences of the Metapolitefsi period in contemporary Greece, and to recognize the high expectations created which ultimately led to disillusionment as prosperity and grandeur proved to be false impressions.

Note: All the play excerpts as well as the Greek publications have been translated by the author of this article

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*Constantina Ziropoulou is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Theatre Studies, University of Patras, Greece. She holds a B.A. in Classics, (National and Kapodistrian University of Athens), a Master’s Degree in Drama (University of Essex, UK), an MPhil (Theatre Department, University of Athens) and a Ph.D. in Theatre Studies from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (2007). Her interests include postwar and contemporary Greek and European drama as well as the reception of ancient Greek drama in modern times. She has published several academic articles in theatre journals. She is also an author of three books on the theatre work of: George Sevastikoglou (2016), Andreas Staikos (2019), Costis Livadeas (forthcoming). She is a member of the International Playwrights Forum of the ITI since 2010. For over a decade she is also a Professor in Dramaturgy at the Athens Conservatoire for Dramatic Art as well as at the Hellenic Open University.

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