There is no shortage of productions of theater, modern and ancient Greek and from around the world, every summer in Greece. Athens is the epicenter with a strong magnetic pull towards Epidaurus. The largest producer of events is thus named the Athens-Epidaurus Festival. Epidaurus, with the largest and most famous theatre has only a handful of performances largely because of the delicate condition of the venue. It makes up for that by the large numbers of spectators it can accommodate, more than 10,000 per performance.
But the good news is that every production that is shown a couple of times at Epidaurus goes on a tour to smaller cities around Greece so if you missed it in Epidaurus, you may be able to catch in, say, Thessaloniki, if you happen to be there on the right dates. I caught a performance of Aeschylus’ Oresteia on Αugust 26 and 27, 2019 at the Theatro Dassous.
The trilogy is performed over two nights with Agamemnon for the first night and the Libation Bearers and Eumenides on the second night. Different directors are assigned to each play and the result is interesting but uneven. I considered the Libation Bearers as the most successful with the Eumenides the least praiseworthy of the three. They all have their virtutes but some had more fine points than others.
Agamemnon is directed by Io Voulgaraki with Evi Saoulidou as Clytemnestra. The large playing area of the Theatro Dassous has only a square, wooden scaffold in the centre with a cracked mask mounted on it for a set. There are some people entering and exiting the playing area before the play begins with one of the most famous scenes in all drama. It is the Watchman (Stelios Iakovidis) who is sitting on the roof of Agamemnon’s palace waiting for a signal that the Trojan War is over. The signal will come from beacons lit at strategic points between Troy and Argos. That is what Clytemnestra has devised so that she will be informed pronto of the end of the war and the return of her husband Agamemnon. She has something in store for him.
Clytemnestra is a complex character who must welcome the returning hero Agamemnon who is bringing Cassandra as his war trophy and bears responsibility for the sacrifice of his daughter Iphigeneia at Aulis. Clytemnestra has taken on a lover, her husband’s cousin Aegisthus (Alexandros Logothetis), and the two have been plotting the murder of Agamemnon. Saoulidou does superb work in showing Clytemnestra as a powerful character able to dominate, pretend to welcome her husband and then killing him in his bath.
Cassandra is a tragic figure. She was Apollo’s mistress who gave her the gift of prophesy. She has become Agamemnon’s slave and mistress and she knows her fate and the fate of everyone else. Despina Kourti is regal, tragic and outstanding in the role.
Agamemnon is a relatively minor character but Argyris Xafis brings out his arrogance in a good performance.
The Chorus as usual plays a major role in the play and constitutes a major problem for the director. In this play it is made up of the elders of Argos who were not sent off to the war in Troy. Voulgaraki uses various methods for their delivery of their lines. They speak in unison, separately and chant. She provides a clarinet obbligato for a short stretch and otherwise gives us a reasonably good rendition of an almost impossible task.
The Libation Bearers is performed together with the Eumenides the following night, directed by Lilly Meleme and I think is the most effectively done of the three plays.
Years after the murder of Agamemnon, Orestes returns to Argos under orders from Apollo to avenge his father’s death. He meets his sister Electra at his father’s grave and the plot develops until Clytemnestra is killed.
The Chorus is made up of Argive women, dressed in black dresses with trains. Monika Erika Kolokotroni provides some astute and fitting choreography and movements for the Chorus. Meleme and Kolokotroni do not allow the Chorus to remain static but make it part of the plot development so that it is involved even during dialogues. There is a good variety in speaking and chanting and in the end the Chorus becomes a major contributor to the high quality of the production.
Giannis Niarros presents Orestes as a young man with a mission to commit perhaps the worst crime imaginable but pushed by divine edict and encouraged by his friend Pylades (Giorgos Stamos). Orestes is joined by his sister Electra (Maria Kitsou) who gives an emotional speech during the recognition scene with her brother. In addition to them, he has the encouragement of the Chorus and his old Nurse (Agoritsa Ikonomou).
Orestes needs to fool the wily and suspicious Clytemnestra of Filareti Komninou and manage to get her lover Aegisthus (Giorgos Chrysostomou) back to the palace alone. Komninou must be gracious, tough, delighted at the death of her son Orestes without revealing it and a master of emotional blackmail. How can you kill your mother from whose breast you were fed as a baby? She begs for her life but it does not work and he kills her.
With proper choreography and use of the Chorus and a fine cast Meleme produces a fine-tuned and well-paced production.
I wish I could say the same for the Eumenides as directed by Georgia Mavragani with Dramaturgical Advisor Dimosthenis Papamarkos.
The Eumenides are the reformed Erinyes or Furies who pursue Orestes to punish him for the murder of his mother. We find him at Delphi where the Furies have pursued him. The priestess Pythia appears to pray. She finds Orestes and notices the Furies sleeping, having been knocked out by Apollo.
The ghost of Clytemnestra appears and goads the Furies to do their job and punish Orestes. But he has been spirited away to Athens by his defender Apollo. He goes to the Acropolis to pray to Athene. Everything that he has done has been in obedience of Apollo.
What follows is the first jury trial with Athenian citizens asked to decide on Orestes’ guilt or innocence after hearing evidence. The trial is as much a dramatic event as a paean to Athens for the development of a system of justice. Politics and drama blend.
That is a very brief outline of the plot of Eumenides. Attempting to follow it in the production is very trying. You go to the cast list before the performance begins seeking the names of the characters and the actors. Forget it. Mavragani simply lists the names of the actors in alphabetical order and good luck in figuring out who represents whom.
The main characters of the play are the furious and relentless Furies who are prepared to defy the gods in their pursuit of Orestes. Mavragani and choreographer Alexia Nikolaou present more a muddle than a clear role for the Chorus. The furious ghost of Clytemnestra is effective but after that clarity is evasive.
Mavragani and her dramaturgical advisor divide the play into some sixteen scenes plus or minus an Introduction and an Exit. Each scene is announced. Two or more actors deliver the lines of one character at times and the pace is slowed down to a crawl and clarity goes by the board. In the end, this is a deeply disappointing production.
The Oresteia is based on the great myth of the curse of the House of Atreus. The murders come to an end and in the Eumenides a system of justice is established for the House of Atreus and for Athens. Aeschylus’s trilogy has resonated across the centuries and is invariably judged as one of the greatest masterpieces of Western drama. The political idea of trials by jury has also survived.
Agamemnon by Aeschylus was performed on August 26, 2019. The Libation Bearers and Eumenides were performed on August 27, 2019 all at the Theatro Dassous, Thessaloniki. www.n-t.gr