Letter from Thessaloniki

It is being heralded that the Dow has plummetted to a five year low. The recession is already here. Yet, there is more pain to come. Eventually everyone will feel the impact of the downturn. No, this is not necessarily a remark on current affairs. A long time ago, in the plague-torn city of Thebes, experts, such as a blind prophet Teiresias, predicted that salvation would come only when the culpable are punished. Today it would be, in all probability, the gamblers who have eroded confidence in both capitalism and democracy. Back then, fated to murder his father and marry his mother, the blameworthy ruler of the city, Oedipus, arrogantly tells the people: «You pray to the gods? Let me grant your prayers.» In a program titled «Theater Encounters: Spotlights on Southeastern Europe,» the National Theater of Northern Greece is hosting the Cyprus Theater Organization with «The Loves of Cass McGuire» by Brian Friel, followed by the National Theater of Belgrade with its Oedipus Rex.Turkey will be next with the Ankara State Theater putting on «Rebetiko,» a Greek play by Costas Ferris. Interpreting Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, playing until yesterday in Thessaloniki by the National Theatre of Belgrade, the director, Vida Ognjenovic presented a contemporary politician whose rule is grounded in the power of money and the media. «The adaptation was preceded by an analysis of the texts on possible interpretations of the tragedy and tragic guilt and, although it can be linked to our circumstances, it is not a criticism of our society and concrete situations, but a criticism of the triumph of mediocrity,» says Ognjenovic. «Pride breeds in the tyrant violent pride, gorging, crammed to bursting with all that is overripe and rich with ruin…. Can such a man, so desperate, still boast he can save his life from the flashing bolts of god?» declares the Chorus, whose job is to say what ordinary people think. In this modern, Serb version of the tragedy, Oedipus is a high-ranking politician who governs over others, while he himself is ruled by unpredictable heavenly laws and by the mighty power of the faith. The moral: Can a politician be successful and happy at the same time? «No, never,» insists Ognjenovic, who re-wrote and directed the play. She should know. Beyond being a famous theater director, playwright, drama professor and free thinker, she was also one of the founders of the Democratic Party in her country and Ambassador to Norway in 2001. Treating the Oedipus text more as a political thriller, Ognjenovic relies on the philosophy that it is better to take the punishment of the guilty into one’s own hands than to leave it stoically to the gods. In present times, where the world seems to be teetering on the brink of disaster just because a few – guilty – people have been on a big-time gambling binge, there are other lessons to be learned from Sophocles’ dramatic genius: say, the immoral concept of a human being’s ultimate relationship to the universe – or to any stock-market. It certainly creates new approaches. Just the kind of approach Greek audiences in Epidaurus strongly dislike. This time, where fundamental issues are at stake and where the vision of democracy, so closely linked with market economy, is also at risk, tragic chance and the «will of the Gods» seems suddenly of paramount triviality. «And that is because we know nothing about that force,» as director-stateswoman Ognjenovic declares. Fast-forward several centuries, and Thebes – or, today’s globalized universe – is once again threatened, this time not by a plague, but by a horrible recession – which is even worse. If today’s challenge is not to keep people from losing all faith (in the markets) and to prevent panic from erupting, then what is? Taking place in a modernized, barren present-day office, suggesting mediocre grey bureaucracy, Ognjenovic’s version becomes a tragedy of conspiracy and high political intrigue. A claim justifies a monologue from the original play: Oedipus is claiming that state-dignitaries, such as Creon and Tiresias, are engaged in a conspiracy against the crown. Consequently, he charges: «Creon, the soul of trust, my loyal friend from the start steals against me… so hungry to overthrow me he sets this wizard on me, this scheming quack, this fortune-teller peddling lies, eyes peeled for his own profit – seer blind in his craft!» Placing power at the very heart of the drama, this revolutionary, contemporary version of Sophocles’ play, transforms Oedipus’s destiny into a parable of a fast and resourceful reformer. No doubt any contemporary politician who considers himself, justly or unjustly, as a reformer – say, our Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis – would be highly flattered to be placed on the same level as such a renowned ruler as Oedipus. Be that as it may, in this case the critical cliche is that Greek tragedy is timeless – a permanent part of western culture. Drama-critic Michael Billington confirmed this once more it in the Guardian a couple of years ago writing, «where does our theater instinctively turn in times of crisis? Not to Shakespeare or Shaw, but to the Greeks.» And if this is not a time of crisis! In his effort to seek happiness, Oedipus unknowingly fabricated an unreal world. Exactly like today’s Internet freak, who, knowingly this time, blasts away in online games or writes love letters under a false identity. Sure enough, there are multiple interpretations of the play’s central theme and abundant metaphors, ranging from Sigmund Freud’s complex, psycho-sexual ideas to the much simpler murder case. «Besides returning to the original myth, the starting point of the new Oedipus Rex lies also in the historical fact, according to which Oedipus was actually killed because of the conspiracy, which came as a result of his advocating patriarchy,» claims the Serb director, who presented the King of Thebes as a modern athlete who takes performance-enhancing drugs, though he knows about the doping control. All in all, this Serb Oedipus Rex was an outstanding parable on a reformer’s fate, which would have enraged a conventional Epidaurus audience.

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