Letter from Thessaloniki

The couple from overseas sitting next to me were flying on to the Far East. «So, you come from Thessaloniki?» they asked. Obviously both devout Christians, they were familiar with the name of the city from the Good Book, with the Apostle Paul and his epistles to the locals. However they had some difficulty locating the 2,300-year-old city. I offered to fill them in. «It’s the second-largest city in Greece. A very youthful city, you know, with something like 95,000 students studying at the Aristotle and Macedonia universities. It is located on the famous – for its sunsets and coffee shops – Thermaic Gulf.» The mention of Macedonia perplexed them somewhat. «Sure! But where exactly is it? Now, isn’t Greece near Myconos?» So, I volunteered again explaining geography. «Oh, you mean that Macedonia!» It is the second time – and most probably the last because of lack of funds – that the National Theater of Northern Greece welcomes to Thessaloniki one of Europe’s biggest cultural events: the Europe Theater Prize, which is already in its 12th year. Generously supported until now by the Ministry of Culture (mainly by the former general secretary, Christos Zachopoulos, who is from Thessaloniki and tried to commit suicide last December) this event presently constitutes the main European award aimed at rewarding theater work. This year the prize goes to Patrice Chereau, who for the last three decades has been considered l’enfant terrible of European drama and opera, working mainly in France, Germany and Italy. One of his most discussed productions was his 1976 centennial staging of Richard Wagner’s tetralogy «Der Ring des Nibelungen» at the Bayreuth Festival. Chereau chose to set the four operas during the 19th-century industrial revolution, instigating angry – German – debates. Thirty years ago it was considered sacrilege to emphasize the dramatic rather than the musical elements of the legendary Wagnerian works. Patrice – who many here pronounce «Patrick» – was present in Thessaloniki. Another prize, for New Theatrical Realities, was awarded at a rather meager ceremony last night to the celebrated German theater collective Rimini Protokoll whose whole gimmick has been to incorporate people other than actors in dialogue-based shows. Widely pronounced as the «star of modern choreography,» Sasha Waltz could not make it to Thessaloniki and thus could not collect the cash prize. Sadly I do not know her work and so I can only quote here what the official program states: «She often looks into an abyss of despair and comes to the very brink of a metaphysical precipice but never falls into it…» Not being able to comprehend exactly how she manages not to drop into that imaginary abyss, I shall turn to the extremely talented Krzysztof Warlikowski from Poland, who presented the most interesting production of this minifestival and last Thursday exposed the beauty of brutality in Sarah Kane’s 1995 play titled «Cleansed» – produced some years ago in Athens by Lefteris Voyiatzis. Furthermore a special commendation has been awarded, following a proposal by Vaclav Havel, Harold Pinter and Sir Tom Stoppard, to the Belarus Free Theater for «its resistance against the oppression of the Belarussian regime.» This group performed «Being Harold Pinter» directed by Vladimir Sherban, a play that once more raised the questions that Harold Pinter himself raised in his famous Nobel speech. What is the difference between truth in life and truth in art? Should an artist be involved in politics? etc etc. You might remember that the 78-year-old playwright, screenwriter, poet, actor and anti-war activist delivered a memorable, passionate, truthful and courageous acceptance speech to the Swedish Academy. The renowned author of such plays as «The Homecoming» and «The Caretaker,» Pinter has spoken out tirelessly and powerfully against the war in Iraq, as well as the depredations of American imperialism in the Balkans, Central America and elsewhere that preceded it. Now, banned by the state, the Free Theater of Belarus performs in secret locations and texts the venue to audiences. They perform with the fear that each play could be their last. In Thessaloniki they were present with three different performances. Last year at the 11th session of Europe’s Theater Prize, a certain discussion troubled the gathered critics. The subject was: «Prizes – Who Needs Them?» At the time, serious reservations were expressed. I remember one that went as follows: «Do juries mistake acts of speculation for strokes of genius, spectacular but shallow tricks of innovation, causing further estrangement between the audience and art?» Well, in the case of the Belarus Free Theater it is different. For while an award may epitomize the superficiality and transience of success, even reflecting the idea of «making it,» but here with the Belarussians it simply open doors and give new breath to a high-quality company. As usual, this 12th edition presented all kinds of theatrical events: plays, colloquiums, congresses, lectures and works in progress such as «Hamlet» by Oskaras Korsunovas, a former winner of the Europe Prize for New Theatrical Realities, which simply means uncompleted works. Greece, in the form of the local National Theater of Northern Greece, showed a shamefully confused folklore-like version of Euripides’ «Bacchae,» with the signature of two artists with an age difference of almost half a century: Tassos Ratzos. who directed, and Nikitas Tsakiroglou. who «supervised the direction,» whatever that means. The question about whether theater is necessary in our age was raised once again last week in Thessaloniki.  There was general agreement. As long as there are people gathered in one place, theater will exist. The more the Internet locks people into their computer cubicles, the more the urge for three-dimensional contact with others will strike them. No one can tell what form it will take – maybe a return to simple narrative, medieval style, such as the French director Jacques Copeau, who felt this need 75 years ago. What we know is that we are all unhappy with society in its present form, and isn’t theater after all a microcosm of what we imagine society to be?

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