‘Memoirs of Hadrian’ on stage

“When there were no longer gods and Christ did not yet exist, there was, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, a unique moment when there was only man.» Marguerite Yourcenar came across this monumental saying in an edition of Flaubert’s correspondences and it stayed with her. «I would spend a great part of my life,» she wrote later, «trying to define and color that man who stands alone yet, at the same time, is linked to everything.» This man came to life as the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who lived between AD 76 and 138 and reigned from AD 117 to 138. Yourcenar wrote what is perhaps her greatest work, «Memoirs of Hadrian,» about the emperor, a book that has proved popular with the Greek public. The book is a novel based on historical facts and a deep knowledge of Hadrian’s era: The emperor writes about his life, his work and his times, in the form of a letter intended for Marcus Aurelius whom he has chosen as his successor. The novel was first adapted for the stage a few years ago by prominent Italians Giorgio Albertazzi, an artist who has been active in various fields and is a leading personality of Italian theater, who interpreted Hadrian, and director Maurizio Scaparro. The show met with great success, both in Rome, where it was first performed at Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli and then in various European cities. On Friday and Saturday, the Teatro di Roma, at the request of the Greek National Theater, will present the show, with simultaneous translation in Greek, at the Herod Atticus Theater. The two theater troupes are currently in a two-year collaboration agreement and last year the Teatro di Roma, directed by Giorgio Albertazzi, hosted the Greek National Theater production of «Antigone.» In an interview with Kathimerini, Albertazzi talked about the show. He is a writer, an architect, a director, a professor of theatrical studies, director of various theaters and festivals and an actor in both theater and films. He has collaborated with legendary cinema and theater personalities, such as Luchino Visconti, Joseph Losey, Franco Zeffirelli and Alain Resnais (Albertazzi starred in Resnais’s film «Last Year at Marienbad»). He has interpreted numerous roles in both classical and modern plays and has received many awards in his own country and abroad. You first presented the show at Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli and you must be aware that the Herod Atticus Theater in Athens was also built in Hadrian’s time. Do such details move you? Interpreting Hadrian at his own villa, where he lived and died, walking on the mosaics, or just sitting on a Corinthian-style pillar base while Antinoos is dancing behind me… is a feeling I cannot describe. It will be the same in Athens; this is the theater that Hadrian loved most and the stones themselves tell us the stories of the people. Is there anything that personally appeals to you in Hadrian’s personality? Hadrian is one of the few artist-emperors in history. What attracts me is that he was not that interested in war or fame but in beauty, in an aesthetic view of the world. How did you decide to stage Yourcenar’s novel which, charming as it is, functions on many levels? To be honest, it was Maurizio Scaparro’s suggestion. I must admit that until then, although I knew a lot of things about Hadrian, I had not come across the novel. What convinced me more than anything else was the love and the aesthetic relationship between the emperor and Antinoos. What did Antinoos represent for Hadrian? I will answer in Hadrian’s own words: «Almost everything that people have said, has been said in Greek. Antinoos was Greek.» What did the stage adaptation of the novel weigh on most? On one particular point in «Memoirs of Hadrian:» I am strangely overtaken by intense emotions when Hadrian describes the downfall of beauty at the moment that beauty reaches its peak. Why do you think that the show has been so successful for so many years? Are there common points of reference between Hadrian’s era and our times? This work has never been more up-to-date. We live in a world where fundamentalism and ignorance cause death and destruction. In a world plagued by intolerance, war, selfishness and the hunt for money, Hadrian’s words acquire a new, deeper meaning. You are engaged in so many activities… Could one call you a «Renaissance Man?» Of course, I am from Florence so I am connected with the Renaissance atmosphere. I wish I could contribute to a new Renaissance! At one time, for a young actor to first appear on stage in a Visconti play or to receive distinction as Hamlet in a play directed by Zeffirelli at the Theater of Nations in Paris in 1964 was legendary. What survives today from those legends? Visconti’s teaching left us a mixture of control and freedom, a professionalism that does not punish inventiveness. The importance of Zeffirelli’s «Hamlet» lies in its brilliant direction and its great success in London. British critics consider it one of the most important Shakespearean productions of the second half of the 20th century. What do you remember from your collaborations in cinema with directors like Alain Resnais and Joseph Losey? I remember working with Resnais in «Last Year in Marienbad» because I became acquainted with French culture, that magical moment when Resnais created the Nouvelle Vague and inspired a new way of making films, away from realism and closer to the descriptive arts. Losey’s films are more internal and based on the actor. It’s theater on film. You seem to be interested in both classical and contemporary theater. Yes, I believe that good classical playwrights are contemporary. What has stayed with you from your close collaboration with Dario Fo and Franca Rame the past few years? We are bonded by friendship, respect and tenderness. All three of us were born in the early 20th century and have loved each other since. There are many things that fortunately separate us but those that bring us together are stronger. We are currently working with Dario on a project for Italian television, about the history of theater from the Middle Ages to this day from our point of view. Do you think Greek television would be interested? What do you remember from your collaboration with Irene Papas in «Oedipus Rex» in 1999? I remember the ancient Greek theater of Taormina being full and Irene was brilliant. We have similar approaches and interpretations of classical roles. I love Irene and I hope I will work with her again. What do you expect from the Teatro di Roma’s collaboration with the Greek National Theater? Rome is not different from Athens, there is a continuity of thought and research on art. This collaboration will function as a bridge in the Mediterranean and will unite our cultures. Do you think theater is facing international decline? Are there signs of such a crisis in Italy? I think that theater is going through a crisis because it remains attached to literary patterns, therefore, there is also a crisis in leading characters. There was an improvement in quality in the middle and high levels but not in the leading characters. I believe that theater reflects politics: There is no leading character in politics either, which has resulted in bureaucracy taking over the management of public affairs.