An important night

The fascination with «Medea» isn’t in the story, but in the telling. It isn’t in the action but in the characters. It isn’t in the events but in the motives. And this is because there are no surprises whatsoever in this tragedy. In the very first verses of the 2,400-year-old Greek drama by Euripides, the audience is told exactly what’s going to happen. The Nurse and the chorus of Corinthian women who begin the tragedy tell us that Jason has left his foreign-born wife in favor of a younger princess of Corinth, that Medea is in a violent passion and that they fear for the safety of her two sons by Jason. Shortly afterward Medea enters and tells one and all that she plans to exact a fearsome revenge on Jason – nothing less than murdering his new bride and her own children. The Russian-born director, educator and academic Anatoly Vasiliev (66), a truly pivotal figure in European theater, replaced the usual «revenge» that sprang to the minds of most directors with «sacrifice.» Nevertheless, his production with the Municipal Theater of Patras on Friday at the Ancient Theater of Epidaurus, with Lydia Koniordou in the title role, created havoc. Greek audiences tend to see what they consider «their own ancient plays» as topical works rather than cultural artifacts. Foreigners are not welcome to direct them. There were some loud protests against the modernist Russian who should «go home.» The audience’s emotion was a very infectious thing indeed. Therefore, while many joined in the applause from the most progressive part of the audience, the clapping was drowned out by the loud jeering of the traditionalists who, in all probability, would have had nothing to say against the direction of, say, a Michailidis, a Gavriilidis, or Iordanidis – all mediocre Greek conventional theater directors who hardly ever risk anything in «teaching» ancient texts. Well, Anatoly Vasiliev risked a lot and that, no doubt, annoyed some. Admittedly, there were defects.    A model of compression, «Medea» plays out in one act of 95 minutes. In Vasiliev’s version, it lasted more than 180 minutes. The hoped-for tension, rising to an emotional release through terror and pity, known as catharsis, wasn’t there as the audience expected. Sure enough, the director avoided all verbal and emotional stereotypes and, in doing so, positively annoyed many. On Friday, it was clear that to most traditionalists of Greek tragedy in the 10,000-strong audience in the amphitheater, this version of the tragedy, in which the title character ends up killing her own children, the fact that this director played down the magical properties of the ancient author was at least irritating. Medea became much too understandable a character for many. She appeared too colloquial and ceased to both fascinate and to horrify as she usually does. Was that harmful to the original text? Certainly not. Articulating in a deep and rolling voice, often expressed through a sadness around the mouth, Koniordou’s Medea possessed a dire understanding of the trap in which she finds herself. «I understand the horror of what I must do. But passion is stronger than reason, and passion is the grief of the world,» Medea says in the play’s most essential line. For this closeness to today’s mentality, Lydia Koniordou was for me the best Medea – at least of those I have seen up to now. No comparison can be made of course with Irene Papas some decades ago in New York’s Circle in the Square, or Melina Mercouri, as directed by Minos Volonakis. But she was even better then the character created by Fiona Shaw, who received rave reviews in the London’s West End for a Medea that transformed this ancient revenge story into one of the most modern dramas in town, as it was reported at the time. Two weeks ago, another outstanding artist who never settles for a conventional approach, Roula Pateraki from Thessaloniki, directed for the same theater Sophocles’ two Oedipus plays («Oedipus Rex,» 420 BC, and «Oedipus at Colonus,» 406 BC) in a single production. In the dire state our educational sector is in right now, «Oedipus» and «Medea» may as well be aftershave or perfume brands. Sadly, very few of the younger students know that Oedipus is someone who married, as you may remember, his own mother and as for Medea, she was a beautiful albeit awful witch. Anyway, Friday night was one of the peak nights of this year’s Epidaurus Festival. Not just for this extraordinary «Medea.» The other reason was that the play coincided with August’s full moon. And it is not just Chinese legend that says the moon is at its brightest and roundest on this day, and that magic may happen on this precise night.  For Asians, the full moon symbolizes beauty and elegance. While Westerners worship the sun (yang or male) for its power, people in the Far East admire the moon. The moon is the yin, or female principle, and is also a trusted friend. Now, Medea may be celebrated in Euripides’ play as the sun’s only daughter, yet, on this magical occasion of the August full moon, Euripides’ heroine, as interpreted by Lydia Koniordou, created a personal triumph in the world’s most fascinating theater. It was an important night.