Luca Ronconi captures the fleeting element between man and god

The performance of a Greek tragedy by a leading European theater and a celebrated director is one of the most exciting cultural events in Greece this summer season. The «mythical» Piccolo Teatro di Milano, the company founded by Giorgio Strehler, is scheduled to perform Euripides’ «Bacchae» at the Ancient Theater of Epidaurus next weekend (July 2 and 3). The play is directed by Luca Ronconi, who took over the theater’s artistic direction following the death of Strehler. Though this production opened for the first time at the ancient Greek theater of Syracuse, in Sicily, two years ago, this is not Ronconi’s first venture into directing the work. For the last 30 years, he has been working with this peculiar play, having staged it for the first time at Vienna’s Burgtheater in 1973, coming up with another version in 1978, before going back to it recently from an altogether different perspective. Known globally and locally, Ronconi was invited by Melina Mercouri in 1985 to direct Aristophanes’ «Plutus» in a Greek National Theater production staged at the Epidaurus Festival. What do you remember from the «Plutus» production? Besides the beauty of the landscape, what I remember most of all are the relationships that were formed, the politeness and the professionalism of all the people involved – the actors, set designer Dionysis Fotopoulos, Dionysis Savvopoulos, who wrote the production’s music, the musicians… Why do you think a contemporary theater public is interested in ancient Greek drama? For me, ancient drama acts like a magnet, attracting different issues and interpretations from mankind’s various periods of time. What proves that ancient drama is alive, and can therefore be staged, is precisely the fact that we carry on staging it. This is why I believe that ancient drama productions will increase in the future. I also believe that ancient drama should not be dealt with as something that is «timely.» Personally I’m not interested in turning ancient drama into something timely and modern. For me, ancient texts – not just the Greek ones but the Roman ones as well – become a kind of a telescope through which we can look back into time in order to understand not how close the past is to us, but also how far we are from it. It has to do with memory. Ancient drama could be considered «dead,» but for me, what really counts is that these «dead» plays, the characters and their authors, are always speaking to us. And that is valid for both ancient drama and Elizabethan theater. What attracted you to «The Bacchae» once again? This play is able to capture the spirit of different cultures, ideologies and religious beliefs – spanning from antiquity to the Christian period all the way up to our era of psychoanalysis. When I was a student, I was told that «The Bacchae» was the story of the conflict between the creator and anarchy. Now I see that it is a metaphor of the relationship between the human and the divine, something which is put into question in an extreme way – given that Dionysus doesn’t divulge who he is. Is he a god? Is he a god taking human form or a messenger of the gods? I don’t know. And that’s the play’s beauty. There’s also a fleeting element, you can never really pin it down. What do these «Bacchae» versions look like? My first «Bacchae» was staged in Vienna, which is when I first fell in love with the play. Watching the play being performed over a period of four months, I realized that it can be interpreted in many different ways. That version was a journey of the tragedy through the centuries from the oblivion of the Middle Ages, the discovery and interpretation of the Renaissance – which was some of kind of treason toward the original – to the psychoanalytical interpretation of today. In 1978, I took yet another approach – it was interpreted by one actress alone, Marisa Fabbri. I came back to the play in 2002, when the Piccolo Teatro and I were invited to stage a trilogy at the ancient Greek theater in Syracuse, in Sicily – the other two plays were «Prometheus» and «The Frogs.» What I felt for «The Bacchae» this time was a sensational notion of the conflict of feelings emerging from the relationship between the divine and the human element – a relationship which focuses on Dionysus: Is he a man, a god or an impostor? Do you have a unified view on how to stage tragedies or do you believe that each work has be treated differently? Each play, whether tragedy or comedy, or even the same play staged during different periods of time, demands a different approach. What’s it like directing a legendary company such as the Piccolo Teatro? Being in charge of the theater – as well as the drama school, which was also founded by Strehler – is the part of the business I love the most. Why do you think the academic community considers «The Bacchae» a «mystery»? Is it because it deals with religious faith? One of the most important elements of the play’s plot is worship and, of course, religion. But that does not automatically entail mysticism or religious interpretation. Is the revival of religious fanaticism due to politics these days? Or do political matters and war spring from religious conflict? It’s hard to express a general opinion on such matters. Fundamentalism does not always have religious causes. For example, what we’re seeing right now with the US government is an intransigent stance, caused solely by politics. Do you agree with your country’s support of the US-British invasion in Iraq? I will be in good company if I say that I don’t… What can theater offer the world today? The instinct of re-enactment is innate and goes deep into the history of mankind. All that changes is the form. What would you like to offer theater? My time, experience and passion.