Athens Day 6 The Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus and Medea.
This was the culmination of my Greece experience and in many ways the most potent.
Those of you interested in Greek Tragedy will know that seeing Medea – perhaps the greatest tragedy of them all – at Epidaurus is a once in a lifetime experience. Perhaps akin to climbing Everest for those of a sporting ilk.
The day started in Athens at 6 am where I joined a bus tour that was to take in Corinth, Mycenae and Epidaurus. I had long ago booked my ticket for Medea, in the knowledge that there would be a bus returning to Athens at 11 pm after the performance. Epidaurus or Epidavros as the locals refer to it, is two hours away from Athens. So instead of waiting in Athens till 5 pm to take the bus to Epidaurus, I opted for the tour which I expected to conclude in Epidaurus, where I could wait and further explore the ruins, see the performance and get a bus back to Athens.
This tour was primarily aimed at visiting the Mycenaean ruins of the Palace of Agamemnon. How curious I had seen Iphegenia the night before and was able to contextualize the landscape, the places and the enormity of Agamemnon’s domain.
Driving once more from Athens there was the usual urban sprawl but this time there was quite a deal of agriculture including cotton. Greek cotton is really beautiful and is regarded akin to Egyptian cotton. One sees it in beautiful bath mats and towels and especially in the white shirts worn by the men. Sadly I was unable to find a shirt for myself during the islands cruise. Next time….
A lot of people come to Greece following the path of St. Paul and I understand that it was at Corinth that he wrote some important works of the New Testament. Before Christianity, Corinth was a state of Greece and the city is perched high on a barren hill comprising a seemingly impenetrable fortification. Corinth features so often in Ancient Greek literature and once more, it was wonderful to pass by it.
Our first stop was Mycenae which dates back to the Bronze Age and the site is in a very good state of preservation. The symbolism amongst the ruins include the Royal Grapes, The Lions Gate, the Cyclopean walls – so named because only giants could haul and position these monsters into the site. The Lions Gate is extraordinary, so too, are the Beehive burial mounds and the evidence of gold in the jewelry found amongst the ruins. The presence of gold suggests extensive trade or looting who knows where, but it is of a significant quantity to be archaeologically and historically important.
So how did this site effect me in terms of my theatre research?
I couldn’t but help think of all the plays featuring Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Orestes and the rest of the family, lovers, advisors etc and see them in this location. And to think that it was from here that Agamemnon set out to avenge the abduction/seduction of Helen and thus the instigation of the Trojan Wars. It was a very grand world indeed. The sea which also features so extensively in The Odyssey and The Iliad seemed to be some distance away, but as with all my travels into the hinterland, the Aegean just keeps popping up out of the mountains.
Another town of great beauty and charm is Nafplio. It is very gracious with wide streets and plazas and a beautifully clear climate. It had served for some time as the capital city of Greece but now seems to be a holiday resort. When I asked people what it was like to live in Nafplio, they would say it was OK in summer…but not winter. I was unable to determine the wintery conditions that made them so despondent. Perhaps the climatic variation was sufficient to move the capital elsewhere? Sadly Mr Wiki did not supply the answer to this question. More research needed.
Then it was off to Epidaurus through beautiful countryside, narrow winding streets and a number of elegant villages. And there it was! Set amongst a beautiful parkland with a museum, several restaurants, snack kiosks and Epidaurus Festival information booths.
The ampitheatre is huge and seats 15,000 people with a beautiful view of the mountains and valleys as a back drop. Tourists were testing the wonders of the acoustics and jumping around the stage being great theatre divas.
By this time I had persuaded an American tourist and her 16 year old stage struck daughter to join me in this extravaganza – not that they needed much persuasion – as our guide said, this is a once in a life time experience and so it was.
After a wait of several hours, the tourists disappeared and the theatre lovers arrived turned out to attend high art. I felt very frumpy in my tourist gear with sensible espadrilles
and though I had considered putting in a change of clothes for the occasion, I decided against it as I was leaving Athens the next morning at 5am and needed to be packed and ready to go. The restaurants ranged from very grand to the aforementioned kiosks and my companions and I relaxed with a drink in a beautifully shaded garden restaurant and watched as the predominantly Greek crowd arrived. Had they driven from Athens? Were they staying in the nearby village of Epidaurus or in Napflio? It was after all, Saturday night. Indeed that would be my ideal for next time. Hire car needed?
However as I took my place in the best seats in the house, I couldn’t care less what I was wearing. Did I mention that the performance started at 9 pm? All the shows started at that time with the exception of Antigone which had started at 10 pm!
At about 9.15 as the sun disappeared behind the skene, the lights came up and the performance started.
Medea draped in a magnificent red gown confides her plight with the children’s nurse, the chorus of 12 masked actors swirls on in a swathe of black and gold/green cloaks followed by Creon in a startling white full length military coat and pantaloons. All the actors were masked and male. This somewhat radical departure was occasioned by the famous actor and the equally famous director who determined that it was perfectly acceptable and clearly a box office coup in that the actor playing Medea, Giorgos Kimoulis, had a reputation of excellence and a devoted following.
Music accompanied the text and some fine dancing resembling the swirling dervishes derived from the magnificence of the chorus cloaks. Two hours passed very quickly with Medea at all times totally convincing as a woman. Gesture from behind the mask was derived from exquisite posture that never once entered the territory of camp. In fact at the curtain call when the actors removed their masks, I was shocked by the seniority of Mr. Kimoulis and his relatively diminutive stature. This was not a curtain call of a diva, but of an artist totally immersed in his craft and perhaps with a notion that theatre and acting is a religious activity….(my thoughts entirely). The director, again an elderly gentleman, Spiros A. Evangelatos, and the musical director, Thanos Mikroutsikos, a very talented 40-something, were brought on stage and after a few ensemble calls the whole thing was over. I had seen Medea at Epidaurus.
The publicity blurb describes the production as ‘a tragedy with modernistic elements, Medea addresses the eternal struggle between man and woman as well as the clash between two cultures. A complex, alluring creature, the princess from Colchis, a foreigner in Corinth, experiences the ultimate betrayal at Jason’s hands. Medea the witch vows to take her revenge and comes up with the most inhuman punishment of all. And there it is again, a setting I had passed on this very day. The gods have truly blessed me during this stay in Greece and I have felt welcomed and totally theatrically fulfilled.
On getting back to the hotel at 2am there was no sleep for me as I intended to catch the 5.30am train to the airport for my flight to Rome and train to Spoleto.
I was sad to leave Greece. I will return. I have so much more to learn and experience.