Letter from Epidaurus

Victors can often become dehumanized, as one learns from Heiner Muller’s arrangement of the myth of Philoctetes, which opened last Friday, at the Little Theater in this year’s Epidaurus Festival. The radical remake of Sophocles’ ancient tragedy of the same name has become a fierce political play. First to the venue. Located around 120 kilometers southwest of Athens, Ancient Epidaurus is a coastal haven along the Aegean, and one of the most idyllic spots on earth. On an overlooking hillside lies the Little Theater, a perfect amphitheater of limestone dating from the 4th century BC, but excavated only in 1972, and now used mostly for music concerts. It is said that the initiative for the excavation and use of this «new ancient theater» came from Christos Lambrakis, the main shareholder and president of the Lambrakis Press Group. Written between 1958 and 1964, Mueller’s activist remake of the ancient text retained the raw material of the ancient tragedy – the island of Lemnos, the incurable wound of the main hero, the miraculous bow, the political debates as well as the three main characters, Philoctetes, Odysseus and Neoptolemus, played by the prominent Greek actors Lefteris Vogiatzis, Minas Hadzisavvas and Christos Loulis. However, the play hinges on modern-day guile and cynicism and the wounds political power can leave behind. The best example is the recent case of Theodoros Tsoukatos, a one-time close aide to former PASOK Prime Minister Costas Simitis who suddenly found himself in the spotlight of an ongoing judicial investigation into the Siemens bribery affair. «I did nothing for my personal benefit. I also feel sad because the party (PASOK) I served for 30 years has abandoned me,» said Tsoukatos after a two-and-a-half-hour statement in the investigating prosecutor’s office on Saturday. This is a case very similar to that of Philoctetes, who was abandoned on a desolate island by his fellow Greeks when they had no more use for him. In Mullers play, he is also murdered by Neoptolemus in the end. In a recent interview with To Vima newspaper, the German director Mathias Langhoff explained that this adaptation of the story from Greek mythology is a commentary upon daily life and the great movements of the 20th century, as well as on the consequences of violence. Trumpeted for weeks as an impressive and a highly contemporary spectacle, judging from the half-hearted applause, Langhof’s and Muller’s «Philoctete» disappointed most of its viewers. Yet the anti-war moral was more than obvious. It couldn’t have been otherwise. Some time ago, the Guardian newspaper published an article written by the paper’s drama critic, Michael Billington. The title and subtitle read: «Terror of modern times sets the stage for Greek tragedy – theatrical revivals seen as a direct response to Iraq war.» The piece started with the following question, and answer: Where does theater instinctively turn in times of crisis? Not to Shakespeare or Shaw but to the Greeks. Sure! The Greeks – may – have every reason to be proud of their heritage. But do they really deserve it? Last weekend Matthias Langhoff stopped the production of his version of «Philoctetes» midway to appear before the audience and denounce the Central Archaeological Council (KAS) and its shortcomings. Kas has belatedly begun warning that a flippant increase in the number of shows, bulky and heavy stage sets, high volumes, and (worse) high-heeled shoes and chewing gum have been inflicting damage on ancient auditoriums. Once again KAS intervened in Langhoff’s production with objections to Catherine Rankl’s massive set. KAS has also contended that many of the stage sets are incongruous with the ancient venues’ nature. Despite repeated warnings, it said, stage sets seem to be getting bigger and the decibel levels louder. Authorities fear these higher volumes could also be inflicting damage on the ancient structures. «Is that Greece’s culture-politics?» or something along these lines was the German director’s stern warning as he stood before the audience. There was some applause. Gone are the times when audiences were savaging any whiff of novelty and pouncing on even the vaguest suggestion of modernism. Greeks like what they take as avant-garde even when they are bored, as in this case. As for the Little Theater of Epidaurus itself, which has been used to host concerts since its relatively recent reintroduction, KAS authorities have repeatedly expressed reservations about making that venue available for theatrical productions, as in the «Philoctetes» case. Yet, on the other hand is Greece really protecting its antiquities, or is this whole affair just a mere farce? Because «how do we treat our antiquities, our national heritage, this huge financial armory? We love them, of course. At least in our words, in our statements, because in any other way, in all the other crucial ways that actually matter, we don’t really pay them that much attention…» as Pantelis Boukalas wrote in a commentary in this paper. He gave several examples, too. «Take Aristotle’s Lyceum, the oldest university in the world, which – and this at a time of heated historical debate about the Macedonia name dispute – is allowed to be engulfed by weeds, eroded by the elements, even though it stands just meters away from the ruling New Democracy headquarters on Rigillis Street.»