Monday, 1 June 2009

Pleasant Anticipation

It’s a long, long way from June to September. To the 15th of September, specifically, when I shall be slinging myself and my suitcase onto the train to Stansted and thence to Greece for ten days. Until then, as I go through the recurring dream that is English Language Teaching in a British University, what will keep me from flipping is the thought of going back to what was home for fifteen years, and meeting people I have not seen in the four years since I left.

I want lots of wine-sodden dinners in the largely tourist-free tavernas you can find in unexpectedly green and balmy parts of Athens, and away from the pullulating sea-front in Kalamata. I want to buy CDs at the little shop called ‘Η Λέσχη του Δίσκου’ on Akadimias Street in Athens. It means ‘Disc Club’ and it stocks classical, Byzantine and ethnic stuff that’s hard to find elsewhere. The name does not have the teeny-bopper ring in Greek that the translation has in English. I want to sit alone at dusk with a whacking great glass of malt in the main square of Kalamata before ambling down to the marina for dinner with friends. For old times' sake I might even eat the στραγάλια, those bloody vile dried chickpeas they serve along with the whisky. A handful of these in the mouth feels like polystyrene and nail clippings.

And I might go to the theatre.

I’ve been to Epidaurus three or four times. The magnificence of the setting and the theatre itself are things never to be forgotten. On leaving the car park you walk down a long grove to the theatre, which you cannot see until you are standing directly in front of it: a huge, graceful sweep of ancient amphitheatre glowing golden in the setting sun and gentle spot lights, capable of seating 15,000 people, many of whom are seated already. On my first visit there I was with a friend, Heather, who was trained as an opera singer, another friend, Alison, who had been a semi-professional opera singer, and I am an ex-wannabe actor. (Gave up on wanna-being.) We confronted that gathering crowd and that pre-performance buzz of conversation, and damn near wept for what might have been. We walked up into the amphitheatre, found cushions and sat, taking in the view of the hills and pine forests and the shrill scraping of the cicadas. ‘You know’ said an American tourist behind us to his lady companion ‘if you didn’t come here, you wouldn’t see these things.’ Well, quite.

The performance on that first occasion was the Sophocles Electra. It might sound odd to criticise a stage performance as ‘stagey’ but that is what it was, with Clytemnestra’s sacrifice at the beginning involving her inexplicably tipping a bucket of dry ice into a small pool in a declivity centre stage. It chuckled and bubbled and vapour billowed out of it. I think was illuminated in green from below, but that might be a trick of memory. It definitely had more of Babes in the Wood about it than hard Greek tragedy. Cameras are forbidden at Epidaurus. Nevertheless, at least half the spectators had brought theirs with them, and every time the formation of the actors changed, several hundred little flashes went off, and the rest of the audience remonstrated loudly. Late-comers are not admitted until there is a suitable break in the performance, and this is the kind of pesky rule many Greeks feel should be waived in their own particular case. Epidaurus is famed for its amazing acoustics: if you stand on the top row of the auditorium you can hear a match struck on stage. You could also on this occasion hear squawks of protest from a female ticket holder who was being denied admission.

The Herodion Theatre in Athens was in easy walking distance of where I lived so I went more often than to Epidaurus. Here we saw Peter Hall’s production of the Lysistrata, which on the night we went was enthusiastically received by a huge audience. The Greek critics were snotty about it, though. ‘Aristophanes is not Benny Hill’ one of them sniffed. Well, true, and thank God for that. I thought he was just being tediously chauvinistic and suggesting that foreigners were incapable of appreciating and interpreting Greek drama, the old ‘it’s-not-in-their-blood’ bollocks. But then I went on my own one evening to see a Greek company perform Othello. I think I endured it for about half an hour. The first thing that was wrong was the Desdemona. She gets quite a build up before we see her, what with her father Brabantio having a fit because she appears to have been abducted, and Othello’s long speech to the senate about how he captured her imagination with his stirring tales of war and heroic exploits. Her old dad tells us she is:

A maiden never bold:
Of spirit so still and quiet, that her motion
Blush’d at herself

So expectations are high by the time she’s brought on: a tender and blushing young thing she must be, but full of suppressed passion. Here she must have been at least forty five, hair lacquered into a crash helmet, and with the voice of one who smoked sixty a day. She was hardly so lovely fair that the sense ached at her- the murder scene must have come as quite a relief. The biggest misjudgment, though, was the Iago. He was a mustachioed villain, transparently up to no good. This of course made the rest of the characters look like credulous idiots, all going on about him being honest, honest Iago, and weighing his words e’er he gave them breath, when we could all see he was as subtle as Dick Dastardly.

Perhaps the Greek critics had a point after all. Maybe the British Lysistrata was a tad too larky? I don't know. Certainly that Greek Othello was too broadly drawn, too doom-laden from the off, too unwilling to allow itself to be funny, as if all the characters knew they were acting in a tragedy before they had any reason to suspect this to be the case. Maybe the Greek style of stage acting is too focussed on tragedy or comedy, rather than on the combination of the two necessary for Shakespeare. Maybe it was just a crap production.

Anyway, we will see what’s on this autumn. I feel I have some living to catch up on.


Ikben said...

I went to the Herodion on 22 August 1976 with two Greek friends to hear the Greek pianist Gina Bachauer perform with the National Symphony Orchestra. The program was to be all Beethoven, all Thirds: Leonora Overture No. 3, Third Piano Concerto and the Third Symphony.

Before the concert began a man walked onto the stage to inform us that Madame Bachauer was delayed and that the 3rd Symphony would be played before the intermission with the other two pieces to be played afterwards. After the intermission the same man walked onto the stage and attempted to speak, but he was greeted with a 5 minute long chorus of "oxi, oxi, oxi" ("no, no, no") from the audience. When he was finally able to speak, he informed us that Madame Bachauer had died during the performance of the 3rd Symphony and that in her honor the National Symphony Orchestra would play the 2nd movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony. It was the most memorable rendition of that movement that I have ever heard and a suitable goodbye to the beloved pianist.

After the movement ended there was no applause and no sound. The audience filed silently out of the Herodion.

My Greek friends and I talk about this night each time I visit them.

vilges suola said...

Hi, thank you for the comment. Good story. I haven't seen anything so memorable. Not yet, at least.

Fionnchú said...

How serious is "Lysistrata" supposed to be for a native audience anyway? I saw it as a freshman in college taking a course in Ancient Comedy (much of which made me lament the 75% of Greek Lit we've lost, given the sorry lot that remains) visiting an art school's performance, lovely co-eds bashing about with giant foam-rubber phalluses as if Aubrey Beardsley staged it; I got a nice kiss from one of the lissome, presumably randy actresses when they dashed about the audience at the climactic declaration of peace! How po-faced should a sex satire be for our Hellenic connoisseurs? Isn't there slapstick in Aristophanes' original shtick?

vilges suola said...

I haven't a clue! I saw a Greek production of Lysistrata at Epidaurus which some of the stuffier critics had condemned for the huge false tits worn by the 'female' characters of the all-male cast. No idea what their objection was, especially as great stiff whangs are expected in the case of the males. Perhaps it's simply that critics have to produce a given number of words to meet a deadline, and carping is one way to fill in the quota. I didn't really want to say that, as I was going to add some unkind comments about the Greek production of Othello, and suggest each production had missed something essential to the spirit of the original. In the case of the National Theatre's Lysistrata I honestly don't know what that was.


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