Letter from Istanbul

The way the news was a couple of days ago, it seemed like a perfect time to get away from everything. «Everything» was at a standstill in Athens – the theater season, internal politics, even the war on terrorism. Only the preparations for the Olympics were still continuing. It wouldn’t hurt, I thought, if I sneaked away to my beloved city, Istanbul. So that’s what I did. The occasion was the 14th International Istanbul Theater Festival. Not unlike Athens, Istanbul is a city with a big appetite for theater. But it differs from Greece in that the latter maintains that the art is primarily about edifices, and then about what happens inside them, while in Istanbul, there are many, highly insignificant-looking venues where drama is taking place. One of them is the 80-seater Tiyatro Oyurevi, in the Tarlabasi neighborhood, an area frequented by transvestites. The group is directed by Mahir Gusirayi – the son of a prominent Turkish cinema personality – who did, I heard, a most remarkable «Antigone» by Sophocles. More than a dozen Turkish groups participated this year, plus some ultramodern productions from abroad, such as Cheek by Jowl’s contemporary take on «Othello,» from Britain (directed by Declan Donnellan), which explored racial and romantic tensions. «A Muslim invasion threatens and the only general who can save Venice is black.» Read the program. Othello was performed by a very dark-colored Matthew Douglas. There was also a most unusual version of Henrik Ibsen’s «A Doll’s House» from Berlin (Schaubuehne am Lehniner Platz), directed by German star-director Thomas Ostermeier. The neurotically unstrung heroine, Nora, not only dances her usual tarantella in desperate frenzy, thus famously closing the play’s second act but at the very end also grabs a gun and shoots her husband dead. Certainly not what Ibsen, the father of realism, had in mind. In Istanbul there are many tiny theaters, many interconnected through marketing and personnel, each with its own groundswell of community support and each carrying on its small business quietly for years. One of the most interesting projects of this festival was «Home Sweet Home,» by Emre Koyuncuoglu, which followed the relationship between people with different social and cultural backgrounds and the particular space they inhabit. The production had its premiere in Diyarbakir – a strongly Kurdish region – last year. Meanwhile, a lot is happening in Turkey on its way to Europe. If nothing has changed during the last 24 hours, this Monday morning the first Kurdish TV broadcasts will be aired at 10 a.m. on state-owned Turkish Radio and Television Corporations’ (TRT) Channel 3. Turkey has passed seven significant packages of reform laws in the past months, and recently amended its constitution in line with the EU’s basic criteria – the Copenhagen criteria. And it’s not only the Istanbul-Ankara high-speed train that was launched last Friday, which has cut the rail journey from 7.5 to 4.5 hours (I have heard that within a period of one-and-a-half years, this will be reduced to around three hours). No, you just have to see performances like the modernistic «Rainbow,» by Damia Hacaloglu, performed on what is left of the Great Palace of the Byzantine imperial family, a show that obliged spectators to participate in the action, or the aerial «Vertigo No. 4,» by Tugce Ulugun Tuna, which raises a metaphorical question mark over the relationship between the body, gravity, balance and space. Both productions prepare for the next generation of stage audiences. The indirect Greek contribution to this Festival has been – what else? – ancient tragedy and comedy. The Izmit Municipal Theater showed its adaptation of Aristophanes’ «Peace,» with a narrative style stemming from Turkish folk drama, or so I read, for I did not see this production. Nor did I have the chance to go and see «Oedipus in Exile,» by Sahika Tekand, which will be performed soon in Delphi within the framework of «Sophocles, 2,500 Years since his Birth.» The first known theater festivals in ancient Greece were religious functions, havens from a world of commerce, and this is what this Istanbul Festival shares with our antique tradition: Small theaters, at their best, offer an alternative way of seeing things and feeling things. It may be that large numbers of people in our common – Greek and Turkish – culture aren’t particularly interested. But a small number, particularly the young, seem desperate for it. Young Istanbul audiences in sold-out theaters explain the cult-like expansion of an ever-expanding, mostly experimental festival. Having been here before, I can now observe that in its first years, the festival was intent on announcing to the city that it has a theater scene. Nowadays, this is no longer news, and it’s time to start inviting troupes from other cities. Yet one has the feeling that artistic adventurousness and theater reform is not necessarily a priority in Turkey’s bid to join the EU. Well, Turkey has been passing several other kind of reform packages recently. In fact, while I was there, the terrorism trial against 69 people accused of helping organize the deadly Istanbul bombings last November was stopped when the defense argued that the case was not valid, since the current courts are soon to be replaced with new tribunals more in line with European norms. Following Law 4916, which facilitates the purchase of real estate by foreigners as from July 2003, there was a significant increase of real estate purchased by foreigners. Personally, I did not expect to find the Greeks ranking first among nations who have purchased real estate in Turkey, and they would prefer Izmir, anyway. Is that a sign that the Greeks are returning (excuse me while I clear my throat) to their «lost birthplaces»? «Definitely not!» an unusually talkative Greek official told me. «Most of them are from our Muslim minority in Thrace. They just have Greek passports and they prefer to invest their money in Turkey.»

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