Nikos Koundouros and the Byzantine border

Each summer, Greece revives something of the spirit of the Classical era, with plays from fifth-century BC Athens. Each summer, an audience which has come to know the plays over the years goes once again to see what new variation, what new postmodernist or revivalist influence will be dished up in the latest production of Attic tragedy and comedy. Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Sophocles and Euripides are all present, almost without exception, every year, in a variety of local and foreign productions, with great or small differences and with varying degrees of success. In past years, however, one director has stood out, like the fly in the proverbial milk, for his rough and radical treatment of the classics. Nikos Koundouros, who is known mainly as a director of seminal films such as «O Drakos» and «Young Aphrodites» (Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival in 1963, and three awards at the Thessaloniki Film Festival, including Best Film and Best Direction, the same year), has included several ancient plays in his work in the theater. These include Euripides’ «Electra» and «Iphigenia in Tauris» and two productions of Sophocles’ «Antigone.» The approach that he brought to all, as he describes it, is the «non-literary» treatment of the original subject. In his hands, the text is secondary to the pursuit of what Koundouros calls the deeper philosophical and existential anxiety of the protagonists. In this effort to get to the essence of the text he dispenses with the wordiness of long descriptions and repetitions. What he tries to put across is the strength of what is being said, to find what it was that the ancient author wanted to say in choosing this topic. «I dislike and find completely lacking in respect the vain and foolish efforts to bridge a gap of 25 centuries by turning actors into caricatures in modern-day dress,» Koundouros says. This is also one of the reasons that in his most recent theatrical productions, Koundouros has turned to the far lesser-known works of the Renaissance, with plays and poetry from Crete and the Ionian islands. «The anxious pursuit of new proposals has led both the ancient tragedies and comedy to a dead end. It is strange that Greece’s small participation in the Renaissance has been treated as our theater’s poor relation,» Koundouros said. «It is almost unknown to the people of the theater,» he added, noting the exception of Spyros Evangelatos. «As a Cretan, I thought of contributing to our theatrical adventure by taking out of the libraries the poetry of the 16th century and resurrecting popular heroes who suit my personal poetical ‘nationalism,’ entranced by the language and the 15-syllable verse, I presented the Cretan romantic epic «Erotokritos» last year. With the success this had with the audience I then turned to the Byzantine epic cycle of Digenis,» he said. Vassilios Digenis is the legendary hero of a cycle of poems, or perhaps fragments of an epic, who was immortalized as the epitome of the Akritas, the representative hero who guarded the borders of Byzantium and the Greek world in the wild passes of the Black Sea area (Pontos) and Cappadocia. The songs tell of their fight against the Saracens and other enemies of the Christian faith. Digenis today is perhaps best known for the series of folk songs telling of his battles with a personified Death, in which Death struggles to overcome him. But Digenis also became a kind of everyman hero, the center of several folk tales and fantastic variations. Koundouros will be presenting his «Digenis Akritas and the Queen of the Amazons» at the Herod Atticus Theater on Monday, in his version of an epic tale that stands somewhere between antiquity and his own sensibility, rooted in Greek folk tradition and his pursuit of what the work is about. Herod Atticus Theater, Dionysiou Areopagitou, Acropolis, tel 210.323.2771. Monday at 8.30 p.m. Tickets will be available at the theater’s box office. In case of rain, the performance will be staged on Tuesday.

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