Letter from Thessaloniki

Things in Greece have come to a pretty pass as its political developments upstage events taking place in Kenya, in Iowa and in Georgia. So frantic is the social whirl surrounding the Christos Zachopoulos affair that many an editor has bypassed the foreign news altogether. The alleged blackmail of the former Culture Ministry general secretary, 54, who attempted suicide by jumping from the fourth floor of his apartment in central Athens, created the scandal of the month. Then, just a few days ago, it was the lawyer who threw himself in front of a passing car, attempting suicide over the same affair – an incident that puzzled pensive commentators even more. And of course the press is hot on their heels. Only Sunday’s Makedonia, a Thessaloniki newspaper, found a few sympathetic words to say about Zachopoulos, stressing the fact that his pupils loved him when he taught them Ancient Greek and Latin at a high school in the city. Many of us look down our noses at Zachopoulos, as if he’s beneath us. I mean, does the man have no self-control? Apparently not. After all, the man was in office, excuse enough in Greek eyes for doing as he pleased. To those of faint heart, like me, sex is a private matter and it is wrong for the government to ask questions about sex, and it is wrong for citizens to answer questions about sex. If this whole affair were not as dramatic as it is, it could easily inspire a playwright for a comedy. Some tragic comedy, moreover. One can imagine a theatrical piece which is broad and hammy, just as the revival of Iakovos Kambanellis’s 1995 crayon-colored revue, titled «A Comedy,» now playing at the Lazariston Monastery stage of the National Theater of Northern Greece.  It is a bleak comedy of manners about hell, or rather about Pluto’s domain in the ancient Greek sense. Directed by Giorgos Remoundos, this quaint musical version presents a badly threatened underworld state whose economy, unlike present Greece, is developing at a frantic pace. Scenes and allegories are slow to mesh, the running or rather limping gags are in ready supply, and where words and silences should speak volumes – as intended – they speak only small sentences. No! Thessaloniki – the base of former Culture Ministry General Secretary Christos Zachopoulos – is certainly not the place for theater. So let’s move to Athens which, despite its theatrical inflation – or because of it – with its 100-plus stages is a great, in volume, theatrical metropolis. The way mid-Westerners flock to Broadway, theater-loving residents of Thessaloniki converge on the capital. Now, really, it is hard to say what one should see in Athens. Lefteris Voyiatzis, in his sophisticated, elegant and damned «A Gentle Creature» (after Dostoevsky), offers an extraordinary performance, even though this is not a play one would describe as a crowd-pleasing performance. In his miniscule Nea Skini theater on Kykladon Street, this one-man tour-de-force is terrific – moving, intelligent funny and as lithe and vibrant as he was this summer at Epidaurus playing Creon in Sophocles’ «Electra.» Furthermore, it is a treat to see Chloe Obolenski’s sets. Although Voyiatzis’s work doesn’t pack quite the same punch as his earlier work, he is still one of the top theater directors in Greece. His next project, at the Greek National Theater, is Heinrich von Kleist’s «The Prince of Homburg,» an unmasterly masterpiece. This poetically mysterious problem play does not come round very often. Whether reading or watching it, one can guess why it doesn’t. It is, however, a play that becomes more intriguing when you know that Kleist (1777-1811) completed it months before committing suicide. As matters now stand, enough of suicides. Expected to be the performance of the season, «The Prince of Homburg» will have its premiere in the first week of March. Now for another German playwright. Bertolt Brecht’s modern classic «The Threepenny Opera,» can be enjoyed on any number of levels: as galvanizing cabaret theater, biting social commentary or as bleak satire. It’s a pity that all those thieves, prostitutes, cut-throats and other assorted low-lifes who operate as bankers, industrialists and politicians in so-called polite society, will be confined in a teutonic lingo that cannot be understood by most of us. Now the Russians. Though the characters in Maxim Gorky’s plays will always be overshadowed by those of Chekhov’s, «Vassa Zheleznova» is a rare exception. This monster of a pre-Soviet mother is brilliantly acted here by Betty Arvaniti. Stathis Livathinos directs and it is on at the Kefallinias Street Theater. Another Russian play from the post-Soviet era, «Plasticine,» came to Athens where most foreign plays come from – London. Young Vassily Sigarev was catapulted onto the international scene in 2002 when his play was performed at London’s Royal Court Theater. Adapted and directed now by Katerina Evangelatou for the Greek National Theater, this «portrait of a despairing teenager in an ugly, chaotic city,» is loosely based on a series of events that happened to the playwright’s younger brother. Most realistic. Double bills of one-act and two-person plays such as «The Mercy Seat» are very popular in Athens – because of their restricted budget I guess. Set on September 12, 2001, Neil LaBute’s «The Mercy Seat» is about disaster and terrorism and a couple facing romantic ground zero. The production at the Simeio Theater in Kallithea is conventionally directed by Nikos Diamantis. A little further north, at the Neos Cosmos Theater, «Motortown» by Simon Stephens, directed by Vangelis Theodoropoulos, is a fierce anti-war drama about a British soldier who returns home from Iraq. Written at the time of the London bombings of 2005, «Motortown» is a portrayal of a volatile and morally insecure world. Our present world, tainted with anti-intellectualism, presaging a new Dark Age. And nature is warning us that the exhaustion of natural resources means it may soon be dark in more than intellectual ways.