Sophocles and contemporary approaches to ancient drama

DELPHI – The tragedies of Sophocles – read, performed, reworked, and discussed from every conceivable angle – are the heart of the 12th International Meeting on Ancient Greek Drama at Delphi, which ends Friday. Run by the European Cultural Center of Delphi, this year’s symposium marks 2,500 years since the birth of Sophocles. The first four days offered a heady program exploring topics ranging from Apollo and the Dionysian in tragedy, stagecraft for Sophocles’ «Ajax» and «Women of Trachis,» the possibility of post-dramatic theater, to echoes of Sophocles in vases and the work of Lucian. Highlights included Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney explaining how he sought to make his translation of «Antigone» accessible to a modern Irish audience, and poet-director Tony Harrison, talking about his play «The Trackers of Oxyrhyncus.» Heaney’s title, «Burial at Thebes,» gave his translation a weight and relevance for an Irish audience, said Heaney, who witnessed in his own youth the body of an Irishman being escorted to his funeral under military guard. Life in Northern Ireland has changed since then, said Heaney: «Now it’s more like a squabble in the agora.» But the issues «Antigone» addresses are as relevant as ever: «The situation in the world has worsened… with conflicts where God is invoked on both sides.» Heaney’s way in to the verse, what he called the «tuning fork» to the verse, was the three-beat line of an 18th century Irish poem, «Lament for the Art of O’Leary,» which gave him the rhythm he needed for the speeches of the main characters. Harrison talked about his interest in the lost satyr plays, without which, he claims, «we can’t understand tragedy.» The poet gave a lively reading from «Oxyrhyncus,» where the satyrs come up against Harrison’s least favorite god, Apollo, who takes his appalling revenge on Masyras for daring to play music, the clash portrayed in terms of class conflict. The plays The performances reflect much of the spectrum of contemporary approaches to performance. On the first night, the State Theater of Northern Greece disappointed with a lackluster «Women of Trachis,» disingenuously billed as a work in progress, perhaps because the protagonist Dianeira was still learning her part and read from a script for part of the play. Why not present the production as a rehearsal, and not in costume in the awe-inspiring ancient stadium? The voices did not carry, the use of space was uninspired, and the chorus of women – misconceived as Bacchantes – did little to bind text and performance. The Attis Theater’s «Ajax Material» bears the trademark style of its director Theodoros Terzopoulos – sweat, dust, heavy breathing, obsessive repetition of a words and actions – as a cast of three men stripped to the waist worry at a small fragment of Sophocles’ «Ajax.» Perhaps the time has come for this director to take the next step forward. On Sunday, the Turkish troupe Studio Oyunculari staged an exhilarating «Oedipus in Exile,» based on Sophocles’ «Oedipus at Colonus.» Director Sahika Tekand [see interview] expresses her fascination with games through hypnotic use of lighting and rapid, rhythmic choral delivery in her reworking of Sophocles’ tragedy, which questions the accepted version of the Oedipus story. Monday’s performances were in the smaller space of the atrium at the Delphi Center. The Oasis Theater, directed by Randee Trabitz in Anne Carson’s translation «Electra’s Waiting,» featured an all-male cast of three in a production that hovered somewhere between the ambience of a school play and a drag show. In «Electra Landscape,» Themelis Glynatis directed three actors from the Watt Theater Company in a production that was visually and aurally redolent of Terzopoulos’s influence, but this is a young group that has time ahead to develop its own style. And readings Another slant on Sophocles came from the readings of modern works inspired by his tragedies. Aris Sakellariou read from Heiner Muller’s «Ajax for Example,» Eva Kotamanidou from Iakovos Kambanellis’s «Letter to Orestes» and Romain Pompidou from Andre Gide’s «Philoctete,» all of which tweak the myth to offer fresh perceptions. The Delphi meeting has other treats, including the Meyerhold Center of Moscow, directed by Nikolai Roshchin, in «Philoctetes,» and the Ku’ Nauka Theater company, directed by Satoshi Miyagi, in «Antigone.» Though it has attracted fewer participants than in recent years, the meeting has enough depth and variety to challenge and stimulate. Let us hope that funds become available to support some of the parallel exhibitions and activities that have enriched previous meetings.