Letter from Athens

In Mel Brooks’s mythical «Hitlerian» musical «The Producers» (being shown this season in Greece), which follows the plot of his hilarious 1968 movie «Springtime for Hitler,» the spectator may indulge in some guilty pleasure watching innocent vulgar kitsch. In «The Merchant of Las Vegas,» an unrelenting modern-day persiflage of Shakespeare’s «Merchant of Venice,» by Marc von Henning, 47, widely acclaimed as a talented writer-director, the kitsch is as different as chalk and cheese. The play, which last Friday ushered in a new phase for the National Theater with the arrival of artistic director Yiannis Houvardas, was anything but innocent. This postmodern mix of the preposterous, the compelling and the irritating was, on top of everything else, confused and boring as well. And, if you will, it was also explicitly anti-Semitic. So forget about subtlety. Transposing Venice’s social milieu to the shamefully prosperous modern Las Vegas, the fundamental difference between the two «Merchants» lies less in the shift of centuries or the psychological positioning of the main character, the famous villain Jewish moneylender Shylock, and more in the aesthetics. «The Merchant of Venice» is classified as one of Shakespeare’s problem plays. Not so «The Merchant of Las Vegas,» whose leading character at the end appears in a Nazi uniform killing everyone. (So similar, by the way, to James Thurber’s modern fables, in which Little Red Riding Hood takes an automatic out of her basket and shoots the wolf who is impersonating her grandmother. The moral of that fable, according to Thurber, is «it isn’t so easy as it used to be to fool little girls.») What the moral of this ending is I cannot tell. Having been used to seeing Shylock cast in a sympathetic light, I was most confused to see him this time as a villain, a repulsive clown, a monster of unrepentant evil – actors played the role as such before in the first half of the 19th century. Now we have something raucous, sweaty and very physical with the ugliness of a devastating car smash. Not the very best start for our first national theater. And not just because of its evident anti-Semitism, but, worst of all, because it is a confused, stupid and highly boring production. For although we do not like to admit it in this country, we have enough anti-Semitism. «First of all, I am not a Jew. Can the prime minister say that of himself?» asked far-right LAOS leader Giorgos Karatzaferis speaking in Corinth on May 28, 2002. He was referring to a grandfather, Aaron Avouris, of then Prime Minister Costas Simitis. Well, let’s face it, one cannot call it systematic anti-Semitism. But unquestionably there is a «time-honored antipathy toward Jews,» as Kathimerini commentator Pantelis Boukalas once expressed it. Let’s admit it for once: There is anti-Semitism in Greece and it is not just prevalent now, and it is not just among extreme rightists and leftists, but is embedded in mainstream society. Well, at least in my home city of Thessaloniki. There are figures to prove this: Less than 5 percent of this city’s Jewish population escaped deportation compared to a big-hearted 50 percent in the Greek capital between the years 1943 and 1944. Sure enough, Christian Greeks and Thessaloniki Jews have lived together for centuries in this city, though never too closely. A careful society has always tended to keep a proper distance between the two. «Salonica’s Jews had given the victorious Greek army a cool welcome,» comments Mark Mazower in his monumental study «Salonica, City of Ghosts» when describing the liberation of Thessaloniki in 1912, possibly with the divine assistance of the city’s patron Saint Demetrius, as some still maintain. At the time, many Jews had serious doubts about a future Greek administration. According to Mazower: «Warning that annexation by Greece would be economically disastrous, cutting off the city from its traditional markets, some Jewish leaders proposed instead that Salonica and its environs should, in effect, become an autonomous statelet guaranteed by the Great Powers, a Jewish-run metropolis detached from the rivalries of its Balkan neighbors.» Similar events can neither be forgotten nor forgiven. This could eventually explain the more or less general indifference when the city’s Jews were gathered for their voyage of no-return to a Polish concentration camp. Back to Las Vegas’s «Merchant,» which although radically «modernized,» takes pains to show that Shylock’s thirst for vengeance has some justification. (Alexandros Mylonas plays the Jew and his performance gives a disturbing depth to the well-wrought scene of alienation.) He hates his opponent Antonio (a great actor, Dimitris Lignadis, wasted in this role) mainly because he had once insulted and spat on him for being a Jew. So he proposes a condition: If Antonio is unable to repay a loan by the specified date, Shylock will be free to take a pound of Antonio’s flesh «closest to his heart.» Shylock’s celebrated «Hath not a Jew eyes» speech, where the Jew argues that he is no different from the Christian character, was the only soliloquy that Marc von Henning took almost complete from Shakespeare – if I am not mistaken. Yet opinion polls have revealed not only signs of anti-Semitism in Greece. Islamophobia, communist phobia and homophobia were traced as well. Sure enough it all depends on whose sympathetic ears a well-informed propaganda campaign may fall. «I am not a communist. Can Mr Karamanlis say that?» asked Karatzaferis in his famous speech in Corinth adding: «I am not a homosexual. There aren’t many who can say that.» And his party is going strong in this country. To present Shakespeare’s brilliant, challenging play about Jew-hating Christians is to invoke controversy. To present hateful Jewish caricatures in Nazi uniforms on the stage of the National in Greece in a «no-moral» play such as «The Merchant of Las Vegas» by Marc von Henning is inviting accusations of abetting gross anti-Semitism.