Letter from Thessaloniki

At a press conference at noon on Wednesday, Nikitas Tsakiroglou, the cultural director of the National Theater of Northern Greece (NTNG) in Thessaloniki presented a detailed report on the 2007-2008 theatrical season. The big winner – that is, the most successful play of this period – was Tennessee Williams’s «A Streetcar Named Desire.» The history of a gently reared young Mississippi woman who invents an artificial world to mask the hideousness of the world she has to inhabit has triumphed again. Talking, chattering, dreaming aloud, building enchantment out of words, the leading lady, Pemy Zouni, a trim, agile actress, won over Thessaloniki’s public from last February through January 11, 2009. Some 30,000 people saw the play at the theater at the Society for Macedonian Studies. The play had 62 performances and its revenues were a staggering 321,491 euros – a record for the Thessaloniki theater company. With five stages on which to showcase its talent, the second-biggest state-financed theater in the country has opened its doors to new directors, actors and actresses and has also inaugurated ancient drama workshops to find and train a new breed. Yet the most courageous act was the invitation sent to renowned Skopjan director Slobodan Unkovski to stage its summer 2008 production of Euripides’ «Orestes,» which played at the festivals of Epidaurus, Athens and Philippi – luckily not creating any political waves, as many feared, since the director not only came from a «taboo» country, but had also served as its minister of culture some years before.  The new – yet not exactly innovative – wind that has taken hold of the NTNG has also been tested in some traditional performances, such as «Julian the Apostate» by Nikos Kazantzakis, directed by Nikitas Tsakiroglou; Edmond Rostand’s play of pathos, bathos, humor and heroism, «Cyrano de Bergerac,» directed by Evis Gavriilidis and Iakovos Kambanellis «A Comedy,» directed by Giorgos Remoundos. The latter was an unfortunate production indeed, with plenty of (the word is unavoidable) panache. The inevitable classics were also present in the theater’s previous season, with Anton Chekhov, Shakespeare, Luigi Pirandello etc. It so happens that when watching foreign plays, the spectator often wonders: Whose play is it anyway? And this does not happen in Thessaloniki. We’re all familiar with Chekhov, Brecht, Rostand and Pirandello, less so with Xenia Kalogeropoulou, Stratis Paschalis, Marlena Georgiadou and the poet Odysseas Elytis. But we couldn’t have the former group without the latter. For Stratis Paschalis and company are translators, that band of writers without whom the great works of global drama would never find their way to the Greek stage. Our appreciation of Chekhov, for example, may vary considerably from one translation to the next. But how closely should translation seek to replicate the original? Well, very. Take for instance «The Caucasian Chalk Circle» by Bertolt Brecht, a play that at the moment figures in the repertory of NTNG and is directed by Sotiris Hadjakis. There are those who – unjustly – believe that this play has no place in modern theater. This is an argument promoted by critics who understand the play as being primarily Marxist in sentiment. How, they reason, can a play that so blatantly attacks religion, injustice and social inequality be challenging to the converted liberal elite that make up a modern theater audience, they ask. Undoubtedly, the Marxist overtones of «The Caucasian Chalk Circle» do pose certain difficulties. Difficulties that in Greece, at least, have been previously overcome marvellously. The first time the «Chalk Circle» was produced at the Theatro Technis by Karolos Koun in Athens, the prologue, where the play takes its ideological cue, was omitted. The same happened in Thessaloniki some 50 years later. Brecht certainly had a distinct concept of how an audience should react to his play. Above all, it was to be experienced as a play of ideas; it satirized the judiciary, mocked religious life and forced the onlookers to pick sides. Now, having someone like poet and Nobel Laureate Odysseas Elytis, who is regarded as the major exponent of romantic modernism, translate Brecht’s intentionally prosaic play seems a sacrilege – against Brecht, of course. I remember when I once brought Manos Hadjidakis’s music from the Athens production of Brecht’s play to Helene Weigel, the German playwright’s widow and heiress. She immediately gave orders to Suhrkamp Editions to stop the play. She, rightly, found the music «too sentimental.» Times have changed. In the old days, translators translated because they spoke Norwegian or Russian or whatever. And they burrowed away and tried to translate correctly. Now people think it’s better to get someone who can write dialogue, rather than someone who can speak the language. Today, most of the world classics arrive on the Greek stage newly «adapted from a literal translation» by another high-profile name. Regardless of provenance, plays are generally translated from their English version. But many are skeptical of this process. With a new translation by poet Dionysios Kapsalis, Shakespeare’s «King Lear,» starring Nikitas Tsakiroglou, is hoped to be this season’s highlight for the NTNG. The opening night is scheduled for Friday, February 20, two days before the Oscars.

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