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THE FREE BESIEGED – REVIEW OF DRAMATIZATION OF SOLOMOS’ POEM BY THE NATIONAL THEATRE OF GREECE

March 2021 marks the 200th anniversary of the eruption of the Greek War of Independence. The occasion deserves and was intended to be celebrated by Greece and Greeks around the world as the foundational event of the Hellenic Republic. Unfortunately, the coronavirus has put a serious dent in all of that.

The National Theatre of Greece was not completely deterred by the virus. It has dramatized a poem that does not deal with great battles and glorious victories but with one of the most tragic and brutal events of war, the third Siege of Missolonghi. The Turks laid siege on the city in the southwestern corner of mainland Greece just north of the Corinth Canal from April 1825 to April 10, 1826, Palm Sunday, and massacred thousands.   

Leading to the fall of the city and the fall to the Turks itself was horrific beyond description. Degradation, starvation, death, rape, slaughter and enslavement on a magnitude that beggars the imagination.

Dionysios Solomos, Greece’s national poet, was living on Zakynthos at the time and the sound of the bombardments of Missolonghi could be heard on that island. The massacre caused revulsion across Europe and the sympathy for the Greek cause that it engendered was factor in guaranteeing the success of the War of Independence.

Solomos had already written the Hymn to Liberty at the time and undertook to write a poem with a different tone about the final, dreadful days of the third siege. It proved to be a difficult task and it took him over twenty years of intermittent composition before he abandoned The Free Besieged. The result was a seriously unfinished work that is just as seriously great and complex. It was eventually published as three Drafts each related to the others but also very different.

The three Drafts consist of a number of tableaux describing the viciousness of the siege alongside the evocation of the beauty of nature filled with the exotic song of birds where April and Love (Eros) dance. The poet tells us of a mother looking at her starving children and being jealous of a bird that has found a seed to eat. In the midst of this a divine presence is felt and the image of the Great Mother, a symbol of Greece and its greatness is perceived.

That is the raw material from which Thanos Papakonstantinou conceived and directed a theatrical presentation of The Free Besieged. He produced a unified and comprehensible version of the great poem for a single live performance by the National Theatre of Greece for streaming around the world.    

Papakonstantinou uses a poet/narrator (Antonis Myriagos) and, according the the program, a Muse (Lena Drosaki), who plays the Divine Presence and the Great Mother. There are ten actors who represent the beleaguered Missolonghians. They are drably dressed and wear masks for much of the performance but near the end they appear in modern dress. The set consisting of what looks like a brightly lit shed or a tent and the costumes are designed by Nikki Psychogiou. The actors run around the stage in frantic terror, dance, cry, wail and provide a dramatic view of people in utter desperation.

The poet narrates disparate sections from the poem in various and very effective tones as he walks around the stage and mingles with the besieged or stands aside from them. The performance is accompanied by dramatic music composed by Dimitris Skyllas 

Papakonstantinou uses the various tableaux to lead us and the besieged from the darkness of fear, hunger and impending death to the light of faith and true freedom that comes with the death of people who have shown incredible courage and faith in divine intervention and justice.

The Missolonghians, from the apogee of their distress, the pain, the wailing and the inconsolable weeping of the Poet, rise spiritually from their absolute suffering to defeat their tormentors.  The Turks are denied victory by the triumph of the human spirit.

Parties, celebrations, patriotic speeches, civil and military parades are, no doubt, fine ways of commemorating a great anniversary. Solomos and the National Theatre of Greece have found a much more profound way of observing the event by honouring the immortal spirit of people who rose from the ashes of defeat to find something much higher. the ineffable glory of dying with courage, honour and fearlessness.

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The Free Besieged,  conceived and directed by Thanos Papakonstantinou based on the poem by Dionysios Solomos, was performed on the Eleni Papadaki stage of the Rex Theatre, Athens, Greece on March 6, 2021 and streamed around the world.  For more information visit: www.n-t.gr