A Greek tragedy purges the plague

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The vast 12,000-seat amphitheatre at Epidaurus, built in the fourth century BC, is the best-preserved in all of Greece. It lies in a verdant valley in the southern Peloponnese and its architectural proportions are so precisely calibrated that a spectator seated at the theatre’s highest point can clearly hear the scrunch of a plastic water bottle on the circular stage 34 rows below. Beyond the pine trees behind the orchestra lie the sun-scorched ruins of temples, baths and banqueting halls that once made up the sanctuary of Asclepius, the god of medicine. In the Hellenistic period, the sick would flock here from across the ancient world for holistic treatments – including dramatic entertainment – in the hope that the god would cure them of their ailments. The sight is awe-inspiring at the best of times. After four months of solitude and cultural deprivation, it is overwhelming.

On Friday July 24th, 4,500 Greeks – in cloth face masks rather than painted tragic ones – flocked to Epidaurus for a much-needed injection of drama following months of lockdown. They had come for the premiere of the Athens-Epidaurus theatre festival, the country’s most prestigious cultural event, and the first major production to be staged in the country since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. While theatres and venues across Europe remain closed, Greece has salvaged part of its summer season thanks to the abundance of outdoor stages at historical sites. Ushers directed the audience to their places on the ancient stones of the auditorium, this year punctuated by spaced cushions to ensure social distancing. Friends waved and beamed at one another, fighting the urge to embrace.

The play was Aeschylus’s “The Persians”, the first extant tragedy of the Western canon. Directed this time by Dimitris Lignadis, the head of Greece’s National Theatre, it recounts the defeat of the Persians by the Athenians at Salamis, a pivotal battle in the Greco-Persian wars of the fifth century BC. Young King Xerxes, arrogant and headstrong, has led the forces of Asia across the Hellespont to conquer Athens. He returns to his grieving mother and the ghost of his disappointed father with his army destroyed and his empire crushed.

The plot of hubristic ambition followed by a humiliating downfall is a simple one and the play, historically, has been open to interpretation. One notorious staging by Peter Sellars in Los Angeles in 1993 was set against the backdrop of the Gulf war. Audience members walked out. This year, spectators had the pandemic on their mind. Although the actors did not wear the traditional masks, they observed social distancing during the performance and ostentatiously reached out towards one another without touching.

Disease was a perennial threat to the ancient Greeks. They believed that their cities were at the mercy of the gods. One impious act and your people could be blighted by miasma: a pollution or disease that was believed to result from murderous wrongdoing. The Athenians would exile their enemies rather than execute them in order to avoid it. When miasma struck, the only way it could be dispelled was through catharsis, a religious purification ritual.

The Greeks also believed that going to the theatre could have similar socially cleansing effects. Performances of plays formed part of religious festivals intended to appease the gods. And Aristotle employed the term “catharsis” in his “Poetics”, a theory of drama, to describe how watching tragedies purged spectators of pity and fear, restoring the citizenry’s emotional equilibrium. By watching theatre, and tragedy in particular, ancient Greeks felt they became more emotionally sensitive to outside forces. “You are transported beyond yourself in some way,” explains Fiona Macintosh, professor of classical reception at Oxford University. It’s for this reason that sanctuaries often featured theatres.

In Lignadis’s production, when Xerxes returns shamefaced and without an army, the chorus backs away, declining to join him in mourning, as happens in many traditional stagings of the play. “The shame he brings with him makes him almost like the virus itself,” said Argyris Xafis, the actor who plays the king, after the show. Xafis and the rest of the company began rehearsals in June after two months of stringent lockdown, throughout which Greeks had to send a text message to their municipal authority justifying themselves every time they left their homes. During the initial read-throughs at the National Theatre in Athens, the cast wore masks at all times. When it came to blocking the play, the props had to be disinfected each time they were passed between performers.

“It was difficult because theatre is supposed to be physical. You have to touch people, kiss people. You have to be united,” says Melina Peonida, the theatre’s musical and vocal coach. Of the 30 productions Peonida had worked on at Epidaurus, this was the strangest. The chorus normally chants a commentary on the action in unison, but the effect was hard to achieve when the members needed to remain socially distanced. To complicate matters, the first four minutes of the prologue were performed in ancient Greek, a language, Peonida says, that is about as comprehensible to modern Greeks as Chinese.

A week before the opening night, the company decamped to Epidaurus to rehearse outdoors. Greeks first performed tragedy as early as the sixth century BC. The tradition was revived, in a secular form, during the inter-war period, when Angelos Sikelianos, a poet and playwright, staged Aeschylus’s “‘Prometheus Bound” at Delphi, home of the ancient oracle. The Athens-Epidaurus festival was founded in 1955. It achieved international recognition from the 1980s onwards, when it began to invite companies from across the world to perform there and attracted stars such as Helen Mirren and Ethan Hawke.

The outdoor tradition in Greece has enabled performance to return here at a scale inconceivable in the rest of Europe. But the country’s decisive handling of the virus has also helped encourage people back to the theatre. An early lockdown meant Greece has recorded only 203 deaths to date, far fewer than its Mediterranean neighbours. However, as a second wave in Europe looks increasingly likely, epidemiologists are warning of an uptick in infections now that the borders are open to tourists. Though the theatre is open-air, crowds of this size nonetheless present a risk. “It still is dangerous,” says Peonida. “We never know what could happen.”

“The Greek people had the wisdom to follow the rules,” says Katerina Evangelatos, artistic director of the festival. “Which is not obvious when one thinks that we are...” she pauses and laughs, “a little idiosyncratic. We do things our own way.” Evangelatos was appointed to the position in September last year, when a global crisis on this scale seemed unimaginable. As the pandemic unfolded and countries imposed lockdowns, she was forced to cut back the programme from 70 Greek and international productions across four indoor and outdoor sites, to just 17 homegrown ones.

There was a pressing motivation to push on with the performances: many actors, musicians, dancers and technical staff have been left destitute by the closure of indoor venues. Workers in the cultural sector had already been hit hard by the years of austerity that followed the country’s debt crisis. In May hundreds protested outside parliament in the way they knew best: singing, dancing and reciting tragic monologues in costume. Xafis was among those who lobbied the Greek Ministry of Culture for financial support for creative artists during lockdown. “What we were facing was quite dramatic,” says Xafis, explaining that most workers in the arts in Greece are freelancers and can’t support themselves without their crucial summer work. “So we had to protest in a dramatic way,” he laughs. Despite the turnout at Epidaurus, the outlook for the cultural sector looks grim as the winter approaches, and indoor theatres and concert halls remain shut.

Back at the theatre, the sky over Epidaurus darkens and the night cools. Winds sweep around the curve of the theatre, blowing uncannily stronger as the drama reaches fever pitch. The chorus gyrate and chant unrelentingly, their heavy steps echoing fate’s cruel march. Queen Atossa wails, the ghost of King Darius roars, Xerxes beats the ground and the Greeks clap and clap. Their applause, such a rare and startling sound these days, rolls down the tiers to the orchestra below.

As “The Persians” closes, it’s hard to argue against the cathartic power of theatre. There are tears in the eyes of more than a few audience members. As they file out to the tavernas in the nearby villages, united with their friends once more, there’s a sense that the miasma of the difficult months of lockdown has lifted. At least for now.

Images: Thomas Daskalakis/NPD Photo Agency, Marilena Anastasiadou Photography