A for Athens
When the best laid plans to travel with a group of theatre lovers go astray, this year I have opted for further exploration of Greek theatre in Athens and Epidavros, combined with some R&R after finishing at Whitley. Today 5 July is a very significant day for Greeks as it is the day the country responds to a referendum to support or refuse the existing offer on an EU economic bail out. After all the hype of television reporting I decided to come to Syntagma to see for myself. So far the biggest crowd is a group of tourists across the road at parliament watching the dancing soldiers. Weather wise, it’s a perfect 30 degrees with a gentle breeze while people take a Sunday afternoon stroll around the square watched by a bevy of local and international television reporters.
It feels like a gentle calm with people heading to the beach and tourists like me sitting under canvas to take tea, ice cream, pizza and greek salad. It’s all very normal I expect and me being extra delighted by the arrival of honey with my tea without asking. Somehow for me there is a sense of democracy in action in the country that created it 2000 years ago, despite the English 20 something’s at the next table talking about the comfort of their shoes.
My hotel is 2 metro stops away from Syntagma (train tix suspended because banks are closed) in a quiet leafy area so close to the Acropolis I feel I could stretch out and touch it. On the down side the boutique nature of the accommodation leaves little room for me to manouver past my suitcase to even get to the fabulous balcony view.
Tonight I’m heading out to see Pathos Allos theatre do a potted presentation of Greek drama. Fingers crossed that it is on!
Sadly, after negotiating the trolley buses, a good deal of walking and asking for directions, the theatre is securely closed. There is no indication or signage as to why there is no performance this evening and speculation from the locals I engaged with ranges from closure due to the austerities through to closure because it is the day people are voting.
The richness of my exchanges with people are indelibly etched in my travelers’ memory. The trolley bus driver who said he did not speak English. The young corporate lawyer who said that he spoke English and his subsequent enquiry of the bus driver as to where the theatre might be. The bus driver could be regarded as surly or resistant with his clipped or terse responses in Greek as he was delivering a bus load of quietly anxious Greeks to their physical destinations on this auspicious day. After further chatter, the multi-linguistic young lawyer disembarked and following several more starts and stops, the bus drivers turns to me and says ‘next stop.’
Another exchange in a humble ouserie where the stout, middle aged and clearly anxious non English speaking proprietress tried to solve my theatre problem while I sipped an overly large Heineken. Anxiety was palpable in the spotless establishment as two elderly men watched the street passers-by while their ouzo seemed untouched on the table in front of them. The television was turned on for election news. I proffered two five euro notes to pay for the Heineken. The proprietress takes only one and brings me some change which I leave with her. Of course, she could have charged me what she liked and I would be none the wiser. Unlike the young waiter at Syntagma who shortchanged me for my tea. In my mind I had already resolved to tip him one euro for a three euro tea, but rather than challenge him for his miscalculation on this feisty day, I left without issue and without further tipping. So what is the difference? And what makes one taxi driver give a discount because he was unsure of the destination while another blatantly claims the meter charge after a more significant and more blatant driving error? And why do I care sufficiently to write about it letter by letter on the iPad? Is it because these exchanges provide an insight into the character of a nation or simply the character of an individual? And when one is unable to speak the language one loses the nuances that provide the all important clues.
Theatre going has been somewhat less than in other years with my first theatre booking The Trojan Women being aborted due to the late arrival of my plane from Milan. However two subsequent productions have been most satisfying. Socrates Now, is a one man show that I’ve known about for years. It has travelled across the globe, including Australia, and is now in its fourth summer season in Athens. Presented by the eminent Emmy Award winning actor, Yannis Simonides, the production takes place on the Acropolis very near the spot where Socrates was incarcerated. Simonides firstly appears as a mirthful, ungainly and masked Socrates, before unmasking and disrobing to reveal the simplicity of the man presenting his defense to us, the members of the jury.
A wiry and energetic actor of certain years, Simonides is totally captivating. A trained actor in Classical Greek style with an English delivery resembling the British National Theatre greats, his rendition of the apologia contains all of the humour, pathos, poetry and wisdom that one associates with the great philosopher. In pleading for his life, Simonides’ Socrates claims to have no fear of death despite the obvious separation from his young sons. Repeatedly, Socrates stresses the ethical and examined life over the profane pursuits of money and position. The title of his play, totally contextualises Greece today, and with the topicality of an impending Grexit from the European Project, the notion of Democracy and ethics is never far from the audiences’ consciousness. Nestled in a courtyard auditorium under the great temple to Athena, one is forced to consider what Ancient Greece stands for in July 2015 and how that ancient impulse affected not only the ancient world but the continuing foundations of modern civilization.
A forum with complimentary wine follows the performance. Simonides reminds his audience that he is merely an interpreter of Socrates as he skillfully invites and manages the subsequent discussion. There is no doubt as to Simonides’ passion, authority and sincerity surrounding the subject matter and his ardent desire to use his art form to promulgate the greatness that was Ancient Greece and its continuing place in the 21 century. Perhaps most fortuitous for foreign theatre goers, is Simonides’ knowledge of Greece’s entrance to the EU with a specific invitation apparently based on its history of the democratic impulse. Furthermore, his ancient and modern knowledge contextualises more than this current issue and clearly demonstrates a strong belief that despite its current challenges the Greek ideal will prevail.
In my opinion, this performance, presented in English with Greek surtitles, is a must see on the events calendar of any summer traveller to Athens.