Irene Papas and the death of Euripides

The biggest university campus in Europe, Rome’s Tor Vergata, which hosted the 2000 Jubilee to celebrate the millennium in the pope’s presence, now houses a theater in which not only the stage revolves 180 degrees, but the entire auditorium and audience turn with it as well. This innovative theater was designed for a double-bill performance by Irene Papas of Euripides’ «Trojan Women» and «Hecuba,» each of which will be played on opposite sides of the stage with sets designed by noted Valencia architect Santiago Calatrava – also the designer of Athens’s remodeled Olympic Stadium for 2004. The Rome performances are a first for the architect in stage design. But who can resist Irene Papas? Especially abroad, where the Greek actress enjoys a respect and status unrivaled by that which she receives in her homeland. Already, her status has given her influence in the world of the arts and politics, allowing her to put into practice her vision of a string of theater schools, an initiative that has already borne fruit with the opening of such schools in Greece, Spain and Italy. The Spanish school, in Valencia, was inaugurated two years ago with «The Trojan Women,» performed in Spanish. Next week, on September 10, the Theater School of Italy, in Rome, will open its doors with «The Trojan Women» in Spanish and «Hecuba» in Italian. Papas hopes to make the show a triple bill for next year, adding Aeschylus’ «Agamemnon» (in Greek) to the program, for presentation during the Olympic Games in Athens. Two other internationally acclaimed Greek artists will join her in this venture – Oscar-winning Vangelis Papathanassiou for the music and artist Marina Karella for the costumes. Kathimerini spoke with Irene Papas. Did the revolving stage on which you will perform in Rome exist previously? No, we built it. It is mobile and based on an idea by Manos Perakis, which we hope to realize fully next year in Greece. However, the sets are fixed now; one set on each side, so that the actors have to move around the stage to go from «The Trojan Women» to «Hecuba,» while the theater moves with us, along with the audience seated in it – around 900 people. It takes about 10 minutes to make a full rotation and you can observe the actors, so it’s like an event in itself. Will the revolving stage you are building in Greece be located in the school you will open at an old industrial complex on Pireos Street? Is that where the trilogy will be presented next year? No, it turns out that the school is too small to fit the stage. I want to have the performance at the old airport, in Hellenikon. The sets are huge – one is 24 meters and the other 17 – and they need to have a lot of space around them. You can’t crowd them, they need air. Nothing has been decided yet, of course, but I have spoken to the culture minister, Mr Venizelos, and he is waiting for me to give him the budget, which I haven’t done because I’ve been going mad with the rehearsals. Will the theater become permanent? I don’t think so, I don’t know. After the trilogy is over, however, each country will get what it has paid for: Greece will get the stage, Spain the set for «The Trojan Women,» Italy that for «Hecuba» – these are works by Calatrava, sculptures that can be put on display somewhere. Was it your idea to have Calatrava design the sets? It wasn’t an idea, it just happened. I hadn’t thought of it. He happened to come over to my house with Marina Lambraki-Plaka, the director of the Greek National Gallery. I said «Will you do my sets?» and he said «Sure.» Is Calatrava used to doing sets? No, not at all. I am the first person to have proposed it to him. In fact, he told me how much he is enjoying it, because it helps him a lot in his work. What about in your work? Did Calatrava’s works present a problem in the performances? Are they functional? Are they theatrical? What does «theatrical» mean? Theater is a free, fluid thing. Don’t listen to people who like to put things in boxes – this is theatrical, that isn’t. Times change, ways change, theater changes. In Spain, Perakis made an amazing circular theater with no staircases, only with ramps that give you an enormous sense of freedom. That’s what Calatrava’s sets are like; they give you freedom, inspiration. And especially for me, as what I am trying to achieve is a sort of abstract realism, what the Italians refer to as realismo astratto. It gives the feeling that you can do anything you want. Will Calatrava also be doing the sets for «Agamemnon» next year in Athens? No. I am thinking of Frank Gehry, the celebrated architect who did the Guggenheim in Bilbao. I have already contacted him and he said, «With no one else, I’ll do it for you…» People respect me abroad… Because here in Greece… We scorn things of value? No, no. We just don’t know. We are not well informed… It’s all right, however, I have no complaints. Vangelis Papathanassiou will compose the music for «Agamemnon»? Yes, of course. In order for the plays to enjoy musical coherence? Not because of that. Because he is good! Will you continue directing after these plays? I am not interested in doing it again; things force me to sometimes. Like with «The Trojan Women.» But for that, I asked for the cooperation of the marvelous theater company La Fura dels Baus from Barcelona. They know the body and movement well. I don’t like organizing things – go there, do that. I only work with the actors on how to find their roles, because that’s something I know a little bit about. And in «Hecuba,» you co-directed with someone else. Yes, he’s a choreographer. But I reined him in from the start: «I don’t want a dance performance,» I told him. «I don’t want hands sticking out here, little steps there. I want each movement to be something. I want a ritual.» Will you also be directing «Agamemnon» next year? No. I will be giving that to someone else. I have a Greek in mind. His name? It’s still too early. I haven’t suggested it to him yet, being so busy, but I know who I want. Is it Michalis Cacoyannis? I don’t know! We have others though. We also have a lot of young people. I want to see. I am going to go on a really long tour… You are currently playing Hecuba both in the Spanish «Trojan Women» and in the Italian «Hecuba.» You will obviously be playing Clytemnestra next year in the Greek «Agamemnon.» Isn’t this exhausting? It’s impossible. I can’t do everything myself. No, I plan to put a Spanish woman in «The Trojan Women» and an Italian in «Hecuba.» I have mentioned it to Mariangela Melato, who is a very good actress. We’ll see. It’s too early. When exactly will the performance of the trilogy take place in Athens? During the Olympic Games. I’m not doing it otherwise! I’m not interested if it’s not part of the Games. When Athens has 250 countries visiting and every camera turned on it, I’m not going to perform it [in some village]. At the end of the day, it would be something of an insult. Will the show herald the inauguration of the Athens Theater School? I would love to have that finished by next year, but there’s no such luck. The poor thing will remain closed. It has run out of money to keep going. I’m hoping the Ministry of the Environment, Town Planning and Public Works will help… In general, are you optimistic about the future of the schools? I am, though I’m also afraid they will be slammed by the people who make a business out of theater. The vested interests right now want people to be customers. To buy what they are selling. We, on the other hand, have texts that are not silly and trendy, that don’t die in two days. If this thing with the schools grows – and it will grow because we already have a proposal for a fourth school, in another country, and plans for another school, somewhere else – and if they are well organized, they will really be something; a theater that respects its audience. That won’t give customers orders, «Watch this,» «Do that.» Oedipus does not order you to do anything. Think, he says, question, look inside yourself. He makes you ask why, puts you in the dialogue, makes you think. He doesn’t treat you like an idiot. Did you select «The Trojan Women» and «Hecuba» for their anti-war content? No way! God help us! I would never be able to humiliate Euripides to the extent of saying that I chose him because he was current. I chose «The Trojan Women» because it suited the location at which it would be played in Sagundo – a warehouse at the port. What should I think? That the play is current today and won’t be tomorrow? These plays always have something to do with people and Euripides is always current. Unfortunately. I always say, «When will Euripides die?» Because that would mean that we’ve evolved as human beings. That we can communicate, stop killing each other.

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