Contemporary director looks at a modern version of an ancient play

The theatrical part of this year’s revamped Athens Festival opens tomorrow with «Iphigenia in Tauris» – the version by Goethe instead of Euripides. It is a performance with a personal touch as its director, Vassilis Papavassileiou, considers Goethe mulling Euripides, who in turn examines an age-old myth. It’s «a confession of faith in this sequence of caves created by the great moments in world theater,» Papavassileiou says. Twenty years after founding the Epochi, a theatrical company that survived for just four years (1986-1990) but peaked at the zenith of modern Greek theater, its founder continues to hold that classic plays «contain dreams that wait to be revealed in the future.» He believes «the foundation of theatrical culture is the osmosis of the generations,» and this is why in this interpretation of «Iphigenia in Tauris» his cast brings together the old guard (himself as Thoas and Theodoros Katsafados as Arkas) as well as younger actors who have already proved their stuff (Dioni Kourtaki as Iphigenia, Patros Lagoutis as Orestes and Alexandros Logothetis as Pylades). The theater group has been named Epochi 2006. Goethe’s play, which is presented in a new translation by the exceptional Giorgos Depastas, has a few essential differences from Euripides’ tragedy. «In this case, the barbarian King Thoas falls in love with Iphigenia and asks her to be his wife,» explained Papavassileiou. «When she refuses, he decides to reimpose the custom of sacrificing strangers in his land, which he had interrupted for her sake, and orders her to sacrifice the two foreigners just captured, Orestes and Pylades, herself. The plan to fool Thoas ahead of the trio’s escape is not Iphigenia’s, as occurs in Euripides’s plan, but Pylades’s, and the solution here is not provided by the Deus ex machina. Iphigenia, unable to bear carrying out the scheme, discloses all to Thoas, transferring to him the dilemma of whether to execute all three or set them free. And Thoas, a civilized barbarian, proves to be more civilized than the civilized, and lets them go.» «Iphigenia in Tauris» was not Papavassileiou’s first choice for the Athens Festival. The director-actor had proposed a play by Michael Hourmouzis as the first part of a two-part project. But this plan was shelved because of financial difficulties, prompting Papavassileiou to suggest Goethe’s text instead. «It’s a play that preoccupied me insistently with regard to how modern man can visit the ancient world, and how theater is condemned to make the ancient present and the present ancient, highlighting its connection with antiquity,» he said. «I don’t believe theater documents eras like a camera, but, rather, like a seismograph. In other words, it records vibrations and waves below surface level.» Goethe’s «Iphigenia» serves to declare a direct association with Euripides’ work, but the German playwright’s work is more playful. Goethe preserves Euripides’ themes, but, beyond that, plays a game of trespassing, or, even desecration. In other words, Goethe performs the task of every contemporary. «The journey from legend to spoken form and optical reproduction is, in itself, a kind of humiliation – one that, however, is committed for the sake of an outstanding product, as, this way, the greatness of yesterday opens up to the adventure of connecting with today,» noted Papavassileiou. «I don’t believe in stagnancy – theater itself does not believe this. This is the fate of theater,» he added. Responding to a question on whether Goethe’s specific work could bear the weight of converging with the contemporary world, Papavassileiou noted: «Its contemporaries criticized the work for not possessing the power of collision and theatricality. I believe that we, from a distance of two decades, can see the text from a new perspective and discover layers that prompt new dimensions. As if some dreams are hidden amid the text, waiting to be discovered in the future – something, which I confess, propels and stimulates me.» The degree of liberty with which he interpreted the covert dreams in Goethe’s play, Papavassileiou said, could be compared to that of his «German colleagues and their takes of ancient Greek drama.» Papavassileiou said the production would not be performed at venues beyond the Herod Atticus, because there were no intentions to turn it into your typical summer festival event. «I believe – and I’ve said this to Giorgos Loukas [Hellenic Festival director] – that theatrical productions for festivals ought to be presented at just 10 points in this country that are equipped with fully appropriate facilities,» said Papavassileiou. Stricter selection of venues, he added, helps maintain a work’s stature. Papavassileiou did not rule out the possibility of staging the project at an indoor venue in the winter season. «It’s something we’re discussing. But, in this case, the performance will need to be redone from scratch.»