There’s nothing like a bit of international travel…unless of course you’re in Spain and now facing quarantine on return; no such fears with attending a play online. Two days ago it was central Manhattan for Carousel, yesterday it was the magnificent open-air theatre at Epidaurus, a couple of hours outside of Athens, to see the oldest full length play still in existence, The Persians by Aeschylus. I visited Epidaurus many years ago but never saw any sort of performance there – though I do remember standing dead centre of the vast arena and delivering a few lines of my own … just to test the acoustics, you understand. It was and remains a remarkable place. Last night was the very first attempt to livestream from there and it mostly worked its magic.
The Persians is a tale of war or perhaps more correctly anti-war. It tells of the invasion of Ancient Greece by the powerful Persians who come to grief at the Battle of Salamis, an event in which Aeschylus took part 2,500 years ago. The battle marked the start of the Greek fight back against the invaders and is hailed as a turning point for the country in forging its own unity and identity. However, Aeschylus chooses to unfold events from the Persians’ perspective rather than the Greeks thus showing the country that has been defeated rather than victorious. This, in itself, is rather unusual but allows the author to show the effects of hubris (excessive pride in one’s own ambitions) and how mankind can suddenly go from triumph to disaster – hopefully some of our politicians were watching last night.
The structure of the play is relatively straightforward and set the pattern for much Greek drama to follow. In the Persian city of Susa, a chorus of elders, awaiting news, introduce events. Queen Atossa, mother to the present king Xerxes, recounts an ominous dream foretelling disaster for the nation. This is confirmed when a messenger delivers a detailed account of the battle of Salamis. Plunged into despair, Atossa summons the spirit of her dead husband King Darius; he lays the blame firmly at the feet of his hubristic son. The play’s coda has Xerxes appear to bewail his (and the nation’s) fate.
As plays go it’s actually not that thrilling a storyline but, of course, it is all in the way in which it is done and the atmosphere added by the open air auditorium means that it becomes something greater than the play itself. The nine strong chorus have a strong rhythmic delivery sometimes speaking together, sometimes separately. Even more impressive is their movement, wielding long staves which they twist and turn to create intricate patterns. Lydia Koniordu as the Queen is the standout performer, dressed in a huge black gown she looks like one of the birds of ill omen which she describes from her dream. Her performance is almost operatic and she is truly terrifying when summoning her dead husband from Hades. I was less impressed by Nikos Karathanos as the ghost of Darius, but I think that was mostly to do with his rather silly costume, a white gown with a skeleton on it which looked cartoonish. Argyris Pantazaras has the difficult job of delivering the long (very long) exposition as the Messenger but does so with commendable vehemence. Argyris Xafis as Xerxes seemed a bit one note but that’s how the part is written.
The National Theatre of Greece’s Artistic Director, Dimitris Lignadis, keeps the action firmly focused on the characters although the emphasis only just manages to stay the right side of being over declamatory. The technical side all worked very well apart from one aspect. Whoever chose to have the English subtitles in white lettering hadn’t thought through the implications of the text being frequently projected against a white/cream background (as in many of the costumes); the words just disappeared from view. Fortunately, this wasn’t so often as to totally impede meaning, but my Greek not being up to much (alright, it’s non-existent) I was rather reliant on them. I would in the normal course of events be encouraging readers to seek this performance out, but it doesn’t seem to be the intention that viewers can catch up. In the best traditions of theatre, it was a transitory performance last night and you had to be there…or at least there for the livestream. There is one more live performance this evening if you’re keen and can get a flight organised to Greece. And there’s no required quarantine on returning from there…yet!
Production photos by Marilena Anastasiadou
The Persians was a live stream so is currently no longer available
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