Letter from Plzen

Were he here some days ago, in this small beautiful city called Plzen where the real good beer comes from, our good 53-year-old Deputy Culture Minister Petros Tatoulis, would likely be green with envy. Opening the 13th International Theater Festival, his Czech counterpart, former actor Vitczslav Jandal (reliable sources assured me he was a mediocre one) had a nice-looking young girl at his side on the stage of the baroque 140-year-old state theater. She represented Cesky Telecom, the main sponsor of this important Central European festival. «We need private initiative and we are grateful for the important support they had provided during the last years,» the Czech minister said. Weren’t these more or less the exact words of our Minister Tatoulis, when about a year ago in an article in Kathimerini, he proclaimed that Greece’s arts lobby should stop pleading for bigger subsidies from his ministry and should seek an American-style arts policy instead? Well, by and large, the acknowledged truth is that governments actually have less money than ever before. Is art money or vice versa? Gone are the days when artistic discussions were mostly about aesthetics; about how art ennobles and enriches people; when there were prolific debates to establish which came first: the absolutely relative or the relatively absolute nature of beauty. Now, when we have to create a civilization as opposed to a way of life, arts are mainly considered as an excellent investment. And there are those who insist that economics as well as cultural survival dictate that they should get what they need. A children’s playground, for instance. «I was once watching some children playing in the playground and it suddenly dawned on me that they were acting out the perfect play. The very essence of creativity is concealed in the playground,» said the director Oskaras Korsunovas, born in Vilnius in 1969. He directed the opening production of this festival, which was Sophocles’ «Oedipus Rex.» All the action takes place – where else? – in a children’s playground: lots of ladders, a swing, a slide, a roundabout and a sandpit. The chorus wears Mickey Mouse masks and the chorus leader is an enormous teddy bear. Now, the critical cliche is that Greek tragedy is «timeless» – a permanent part of Western culture. However, they surely do Sophocles very differently in Lithuania, where this production comes from. If this was a Lithuanian classic of which I had no knowledge, I probably wouldn’t mind at all. On the contrary, I would be applauding the inventiveness of the stagecraft. Yet with «Oedipus Rex» – which has been rated, from Aristotle onward, as the model tragedy – things are different. There were plenty of times during this flashy production when one felt one couldn’t see the trees for the wood. This was a tragedy that seemed to me to be a slapstick version of an acrobatic Oedipus directed by a Lithuanian creator who has strived to break the exhausted tradition of staging ancient Greek plays. Presently in Greece – especially after a successful summer (in terms of tourist arrivals) – there have been many insisting that art, even in its extremes, is a major contributor to the nation’s tourist appeal. With heroic continence, such voices articulate how art accounts for such a great number of «creative jobs» and all kinds of business, from travel and tourism to galleries, restaurants and hotels – voices that seem to know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Salvation lies not in pointing enviously to the bloated opera houses, national theaters and grand museums of Europe’s old city states, but in encouraging creative management and audience-directed marketing in state-funded cultural institutions in Athens and Thessaloniki. After all, the less arts are reliant on the state, the better. Now, the «Oedipus» production shown in Plzen was generously supported by Czech Telecom. It might have impressed many in Greece as well. «It is about time to put a definite end to state-subsidized culture,» according to Deputy Culture Minister Petros Tatoulis. His obvious retort being: If the investment for tourism is as good as is implied, go talk to a bank, not the state treasury. «It is the citizen himself who has to decide which artist is in a position to flourish and make a name for himself, and not some public servant,» he has added. Quite true. All the same I would be really curious to see how a Greek audience would react when, at the end of the aforementioned production, Oedipus falls from a swing which moves with ever greater intensity and is thrown out of orbit. Personally, although I have no problem with directors who want to liberate Shakespeare or Goethe, I find myself minding very much indeed about the ancient Greeks. Not necessarily because texts might be «misinterpreted» but because in such cases the action on stage is usually too exhausting to watch, as in the case of this Korsunova’s «Oedipus.»

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