Letter from Thessaloniki

In the exact words of Nikita Milivojevic, a stage director from the former Yugoslavia, now Serbia: «When the two brothers take up arms against each other (and then even in death cannot be buried equally), in my country, we immediately recognize our own story: This is our tragedy.» He has directed «My Homeland – Seven Dreams» a modern play that has adopted motives from the ancient Greek tragedies of the Theban Cycle: «Antigone,» Seven Against Thebes,» «Oedipus Rex» and «The Phoenician Women.» The play (a co-production between the BITEF Theater in Belgrade and the European Culture Center in Delphi) will be presented this coming Saturday in Thessaloniki during a theater festival of Southeastern Europe event titled «Aspects of Ancient Drama.» In his play, «The Sacrifice,» produced by the State Theater of Ankara, Gungor Dilmen declares he was inspired by Euripides’ «Medea.» He presents a problem for Turkish society still present in some regions of the country. Although prohibited by the civil code, men in the distant areas of Anatolia still obey a religious tradition that permits them to marry a second or even a third spouse. «Oedipus in Corinth,» written by Ivo Svetina and directed by Ivitsa Bulian for the Slovene National Theater, narrates the time Oedipus spent at the court of Corinth before killing his father and marrying his mother and thus becoming the tragic hero he still represents. «The performance is inspired by… later utopias of the 70s… and the causes of contemporary social crisis,» notes the program. Now, what is striking in this festival is that everyone involved in the current Greek revivals sees the plays as topical works rather than cultural artifacts. The cliche, of course, is that Greek tragedy is «timeless,» a permanent part of Western culture. The staggering fact, however, is that for decades the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides went virtually unperformed in the countries of Southeast Europe. Those were the times when, to some – not a few – people, Oedipus and Medea may have sounded like aftershave or perfume brands. That’s not so anymore, thanks to an initiative by the National Theater of Northern Greece, which is presently hosting the first Theater Festival of Southeastern Europe in Thessaloniki from June 14 to July 13. Eight theater companies from eight countries are currently presenting their performances of ancient Greek plays, as well as some modern productions inspired by myths from ancient drama. Probably the most interesting event here is the special participation of the exceptional Katona Jozsef Theater of Hungary, which tomorrow and Wednesday returns to Thessaloniki with a performance of Euripides’ «Medea,» directed by its artistic director, Gabor Zsambeki. «Ancient drama, with its rich mythological allusions, the timeless nature of its ideas and its powerful effect even today, emerges through the contemporary outlook of competent theater artists and brings us closer to our neighbors,» declares Nikitas Tsakiroglou, the artistic director of the National Theater of Northern Greece and the driving force behind this first festival of its kind in the Greek north. With four productions of «Medea» – from Hungary, Albania, Romania and Turkey – plus one «Iphigenia in Tauris,» it is clear who dominates the festival. It is Euripides, of course, and it is not hard to see why. He lived through a period when Athens was engaged in a debilitating war against Sparta and eight of his 19 surviving plays deal with the conflict’s disastrous political and social consequences. So, much as in today’s world, Euripides’ skepticism also speaks directly to our own age. As the late Don Taylor, whose translation of «Iphigenia at Aulis» has been used by the National Theater in the United Kingdom, once wrote: «Euripides does the biggest demolition job on the Homeric heroes before Shakespeare put them to the sword in ‘Troilus and Cressida’» – and before wildfires demolished modern-day Greece. Modern directors have discovered in these plays a metaphor for our own times. «Delving into a play by Euripides is a test of dialectic thought,» theorizes Yiannis Margaritis, who directs «Iphigenia in Tauris» for the Cyprus Theater Organization, adding, «The circle of blood will only stop with the utopia of the full acceptance of the Other…» Now, both Iphigenias were written at a time when Euripides was losing faith in political leaders and their inability to extricate themselves from interminable war. If these plays don’t bring Iraq to mind, then what will? A woman named Lysistrata hatches the plan to withhold sex to get Athenian husbands back from warring. The moral is simple: War is bad. It bankrupts nations and, most importantly, keeps fighting men from their loved ones. «A super-production where theater and life become one» says Yiannis Iordanidis who directs for the homebase: the National Theater of Northern Greece, with opening night on Wednesday. It is an undeniable fact that the terror, or comedy, of modern times sets the stage for Greek tragedy.

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