Letter from Thessaloniki

What have I retained from the last time I saw «King Lear» here in Thessaloniki? Well, it was that memorable moment when the British actor Ian McKellen dropped his trousers and displayed his remarkable genitalia to the audience. This sublime coup de theatre happened more than a decade ago – it was in 1997 – when the city was Europe’s Cultural Capital. On that occasion, I recall the Royal Shakespeare Company performing on a makeshift stage in the city’s port in Trevor Nunn’s production of Shakespeare’s «King Lear.» (Since we are on the subject, let’s talk a little about one of the most successful initiatives ever undertaken by the European Commission: The European City of Culture. But later about this.) Back to Lear. I remember reading at the time that with his own disrobement, «Lear acknowledges he is just a member of the human race» and since truth lies anyway behind the carapace of costume… Now, winter may not be through with us yet, but the Bard is already in full bloom. «King Lear» is in town once more. It opened a few days ago at the National Theater of Northern Greece (NTNG), on its Royal Theater stage. This time, it’s a rock performance – to music by Thodoris Abatzis – with live performers. «It might have been written some 400 years ago, yet we present it as a hard-rock, modern fairy tale, where the fervor of the younger generation collides with the stubbornness and the senselessness of geriatrics,» says Stathis Livathinos, who has produced the play. He was inspired, he said, by the civil unrest in Greece, which started last December when a 15-year-old student was fatally shot by a policeman in the central Athens district of Exarchia. Who says that «King Lear» defies contemporary staging? Certainly not Livathinos. «Ripeness is all,» we are told in «King Lear.» But youth also has its excitements «and I found a curious exhilaration in seeing the young actors of the NTNG tackling this most intractable of tragedies,» said Nikos Naoumidis, a local actor and stage director who hurried to add: «There was lots of noise, very loud noise – shots, thunderclaps, total war and brain-churning organ chords – and lots of rock music too. Anything to stop you from hearing the words. You go and see for yourself!» Personally, I haven’t seen this production yet, but I hear that it is already this season’s big theatrical hit for Thessaloniki. Especially with the young. It is also a commercial success – and we need that. Somehow I am personally concerned, since I am on the board of this theater and our finances are presently tragic. The fact that a renowned actor such as Nikitas Tsakiroglou, who is also the artistic director of the State Theater of Northern Greece, is playing the role of Lear contributes greatly to the success of the play. A most problematic character, really, this Lear. He begins as an irascible, selfish, unpleasant and unwise old man, who, after dividing up his kingdom and resigning his power, makes a nuisance of himself on his daughters – who, reasonably enough, are not inclined to tolerate his behavior, and therefore equally reasonably seek to restrain him. It is true, the greatest metaphysical poem in the English language, as it has been expressed, has a hero who invites no sympathy. But half way through, and increasingly as the play heightens the scale of anguish to its tragic end, our sympathies become engaged on his behalf. The Royal Theater, near the White Tower, plus the theater of the Society for Macedonian Studies nearby as well as the complex at the Lazariston Monastery, which accommodates two stages of the NTNG plus its drama school, were renovated shortly before 1997, when Thessaloniki organized – badly, very badly and very expensively – its greatest cultural feast: the City of Culture. The European City of Culture was born at the moment that we Europeans became aware of the city again as a place of culture, style and artistic excellence, when the world economy was changing and industrial production was less a boast than nice squares and art galleries. The scheme was proposed in 1984 by Melina Mercouri, then Greek culture minister. This was a time when one city after another was learning to define itself by its culture, to promote itself as a tourist destination and artistic center. Cities that had been neglected suddenly emerged as great European centers. Barcelona, Seville and Glasgow reinvented themselves. Thessaloniki hardly achieved anything of the sort. PASOK’s Evangelos Venizelos was the minister of culture when it was the European City of Culture. The lack of reinvention is because being a City of Culture does not change any real social conditions. It replaces them with an illusion: the dream that any city, however poor its suburbs, however dilapidated its infrastructure, can be regenerated, as it were, by culture. The scheme made this new sense of the city explicit. It claimed a direct continuity between the great civilized European cities of the past and the cities of today. However, in the case of Thessaloniki, it proved to be most doubtful that culture can shape our cities just as it shaped Athens in the time of Sophocles and Florence in the age of Michelangelo. At first, European politicians in Brussels thought that it was so apposite that Athens was the first City of Culture in 1985, followed by Florence in 1986. Could Thessaloniki compete with Renaissance Florence? No, we certainly couldn’t. Meanwhile, every politician has learned to praise culture, because nowadays we all know about the service sector and the post-modern economy. In the economy of Europe at the beginning of the 21st century, it is culture that makes the wheels go round. Do we really all know about that? Not really. Until recently, Greek ministers of culture seemed to ignore that culture is central to the life of any city. Antonis Samaras, the latest choice for this position, could show that something might be changing. Could he? Some insist it is too late. And this is because Samaras could also not prevent some of his employees from shutting down the Acropolis site in protest at the government not renewing their work contracts. Culture is seen as being severely tested by the global crisis this year. As for us, it seems an enormously seductive fiction that has enabled Thessaloniki to re-imagine itself as a cosmopolitan, cappuccino-saturated paradise. Sadly, culture-wise, the city gets poorer every year. It wasn’t like this before. Could it possibly be that the Bard is justified when in «King Lear» – Act I, Scene IV – he says: «Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well»?

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