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Why the theatrical world is smitten with Greek tragedy?

One of the most visited topics of discussion in the green rooms of local theatres revolves around Greek theatre and it often goes beyond our obsession with Greek tragedies. A Masters Degree in Literature introduced me to the fare, but it was only recently that the bug of Greek theatre bit me.


They are known to take the business of entertainment quite seriously and I had a first-hand experience of it when last year I watched Birds by Aristophanes, an ancient Greek comedy, staged by a city-based Greek theatrical community called Scenes & Skenes at DUCTAC, Mall of the Emirates. The production was in English and saw a cast of 30 actors and dancers from the UAE. As for me, it led to the start of a dialogue on what the Greeks have given (and continue to give) to the art form.


“Greek theatre was introduced in Athens in 534 BCE and more than any other ‘classics’ in the repertoire of world theatre, the plays (originally) composed in ancient Greek have proven their ability to migrate between languages, cultures, religions, and contingent political circumstances,” says Vicky Koumoutsou, a Greek actress, founder of Scenes & Skenes, and a drama school teacher in the city.  Medea by Euripedes, a Greek tragedy that focuses on betrayal and revenge was staged at The Junction in March 2017 and explored various modern-day dilemmas including love, passion, racism, justice, and more. Interestingly, the play was nominated in three categories at the recently held Junction Awards 2017 — for best director (Juliska Szik), actress (Melissa Rae Brown as Medea), and sets design.


It’s easy to figure out what makes the Greek theatre relevant. “Because it examines the basic nature of human beings and their most basic conflicts. Since human nature doesn’t change and we continue to experience the same basic conflicts, the tales become timeless,” sums up Koumoutsou.


One can draw parallels between Greek theatre and Greek life, “Dionysus was the Greek god of grape harvest and beverage, and served as a symbol of pleasure and ecstasy within the culture. Likewise, Greek people are known for living their life to the fullest with the everyday ecstasy, drama and laughter,” says Konstantinos Theos, who works with Microsoft, Dubai. “Even though the plays were written 1,000 years ago they give you an impression that they were scripted just last month,” says Andreas Xeroudakis, a high school Math teacher, based out of Dubai Investments Park, “Greek life is like Greek theatre, sometimes a tragedy and sometimes a comedy.”


Well, the city’s theatre-going audience does enjoy an art form that mirrors daily life and as for the Greeks, theatre goes beyond that. Think culture and education. “Theatre was an important part of Greek culture. It was institutionalised as part of a festival called the Dionysian, which honoured Dionysus. Tragedy, comedy, and satire were the three dramatic genres that emerged. Western theatre originated in Athens and its drama had a significant and sustained impact on Western culture as a whole,” shares Theos. As for education, Theos says, “Back home, modern schools incorporate theatrical plays during historical celebrations throughout a school’s calendar year.” Adds Koumoutsou, “Education in theatre is very important. In the kindergarten and primary school, students take part in theatrical shows every school year and in the secondary and high school they learn about the history of the Greek theatre and create very interesting shows.”


So, what are their favourite genres? “Greek people love all three genres equally, as they are a part of their everyday life. However, due to the recent financial turmoil in Greece, comedy has been at its highest as a means to temporary relief and escapism,” says Theos. His favourite? “I enjoy any theatrical play or sketch that references important political, social, cultural and religious themes through satire and comedy.” Ekavi, a tragedy by Euripides, is Xeroudakis’ favourite play, “I like both comedy and tragedy, but a lot depends on my mood — both genres contribute to a lesson in education and psychology.”


Koumoutsou appreciates drama as a comprehensive concept, “Drama in Ancient Greek means a play/ an action/ to play/ to take part in an action. I’d say Greeks love both comedy and tragedy. It is interesting to see them attend different summer festivals in order to watch them.” In 2016, the Greek comedy, Greek Civil (Out of) Service, received a great response from even the non-Greek speaking audience at the Short + Sweet Dubai Festival, the largest festival of 10 minute plays in the world. A riot of laughter, it was a mockery of the operations in a typical government office in Greece.


Before the curtains fall, I ask the expats to share a list of their favourite theatre venues in Greece. “The Odeon of Herodes Atticus; aside from being a part of the Acropolis (hence its historical and cultural importance), the stone structure is a must-visit for the ambience,” suggests Theos.


It is the ancient theatre of Epidavros for Xeroudakis. Epidavros is considered a great venue courtesy of its acoustics and aesthetics. Agrees Koumoutsou, “According to Pausanias, an architect Polykleitos the younger built the theatre in 340 BCE. Among all the ancient theatres, Epidaurus is the most beautiful and best-preserved. Designed to entertain the patients of Asklipieio (God of Medicine), it has a capacity of 13,000 spectators. It is the dream of all Greek actors to perform there one day!”


Well, that’s good knowledge and also a reason why we need to add theatres to our Greece itinerary. Of course, other than the Santorini Islands, which by the way is home to lovely open-air cinemas, all provide a peek into the local theatre scene. Meanwhile, in Dubai do keep an eye out for the next Greek production.

This piece was first published in Khaleej Times.


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© 2018 by PURVA GROVER