Ancient drama as contemporary theater

Audiences at the Greek National Theater are currently witnessing the intrigues of the Mannon family in Eugene O’Neill’s “Mourning Becomes Electra,” a play set in the aftermath of the American Civil War. In what appears to be a parallel universe to Aeschylus’ Oresteia, the fates of the members of the Mannon family unravel similarly to those of Electra, Agamemnon, Orestes and Clytemnestra, as they move around in a circle of hatred, revenge and all-destructive love.

Directed by Yiannis Houvardas, the play marks the third time this season that the National Theater is taking a look at ancient Greek myths, whether through productions directly referencing the old tales or plays inspired by their timeless existential and moral issues. The first in the series, Bob Wilson’s “Odyssey,” was followed by Tennessee Williams’s “Orpheus Descending,” a play billed as a modern retelling of the myth of Orpheus, directed in Athens by Barbara Weber.

The major presence of ancient Greek myths on local stages this winter is not purely coincidental: On the one hand are plays comprising theater’s international contemporary repertoire, while on the other are playwrights from across the world who, inspired by the myths, develop their own adaptations in search of questions regarding the perennial questions faced by mankind.

“Ancient myths have always been accepted universally and, without a doubt, their deeper meaning is spread throughout history. The myths of the Odyssey, Electra and Euridice are all statutory, symbolic myths, whose power is everlasting. Many works of medieval and Elizabethan theater, even Shakespeare, have been inspired by antiquity. There is a sense of continuity in terms of the recurring symbolism, in the same way that poets often look to ancient mythology,” said Athens University Professor Giorgos Giatromanolakis.

Directed by Thodoris Gonis, Iakovos Kambanellis’s “Gramma ston Oresti” (Letter to Orestes) has already gone on stage at the Bios cultural venue, while at the Poreia Theater, American playwright Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice,” directed by Dimitris Tarlow, has been granted an extension to March 31.

Meanwhile, the UK-based Temple Theater troupe performed its critically acclaimed production “Unmythable” – in which four British performers tell the story of ancient Greek mythology in the space of 70 minutes – at Bios, while Dea Loher’s “Manhattan Medea,” in which Medea and Jason are illegal immigrants forced to leave Europe, is scheduled to go on stage at the Apo Michanis Theater on March 4.

While ancient myths are revived on stage through the use of new technology, such as video art for instance, the agonies and existential questions posed by ancient heroes remain timeless.

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