59 Festival of Internacional de Teatros Clasico de Merida, 2013


Merida Roman Ampitheatre, Apelius’ The Golden Ass, Colosseum, Roman ruins and cultural influences.

I’m sitting in the front row of the orchestra at the Merida Roman Theatre. I’ve got best seat in the house and I’ve also got a beer. It’s 10.45 pm, the play is about to begin, and it’s still 34 degrees. The play is Apelius’ The Golden Ass and I’m very excited. This is my last show on this tour, and as I look up at the columns and at the theatre architecture, I am over-awed at the importance that was placed on performance. Maybe the play wasn’t as significant a spectacle as the gladiatorial sports in the Colosseum adjacent to this site, but at the back of the theatre is an area referred to as the Aula Sacra. It is a very beautiful space with a garden, an altar, and a (dry) water race that indicates the importance of the theatre as a dedication to Augustus. Merida, was originally known as Augusta Emerita.
Of course in this theatre, the actor is humbled in the size of the space – 5000 people in the audience, and statues of gods, goddesses and important Romans, including Ceres/and Livia, Augustus’ wife, standing behind and above you. People on the stage certainly appear ant like in this space and it’s not about performance, but the glorification of the Emperor and Rome.

This theatre provides the most excellent example of the continuation of performance from Greek to Roman theatre in amphitheater style. However, it is the Roman architectural improvements to the Greek amphitheater that provided the greatest development in theatre history. With the ability to build beautiful continuous arches, the Romans introduced a free standing auditorium rather than one fashioned out of the slope of a hillside that gave way to the concept of the proscenium arch. The columnar scenae frons has 3 main archways by which actors made exits and entrances and in order to reinforce the notion of Roman hierarchy, access to the controlled seating was made via the archways adjacent to the stage area. Thus the influence of the Romans in theatre architecture is not only considerable but it has proven to be of lasting significance in that it has continued to this day. Perhaps it could be said that the Greeks perfected acoustics, and the Romans developed free standing theatre architecture with a proper stage and the ability to add a roof.

From a textual point of view, the Romans emulated Hellenic values in aesthetics and cultural content and enjoyed performances of Greek texts as well as works by Roman playwrights such as Seneca, Terrence, Plautus and the comedies of Livius Andronicus.

As I said earlier this theatre seats 5000 people and tonight it is full. This makes me wonder how important theatre is in this part of the world. And remember, people are coming out at 22.45 to see a show – a distinctive cultural variation from colder climate 8 pm starts.

Merida has such a pronounced pre Christian Roman culture ( it was founded in 25 BC) that it is not difficult to detect the connections between the Greek and Roman Empires. However, one significant difference is that the Roman Empire was all about the Caesar and war heroes. Augustus gave this town to returned/veteran soldiers, hence Augusta Emeritus, to build a bridge over the Guardiana and to protect the pass. The river is huge and clearly the surrounding area is noticeably fertile. As well as seeing orchards of peaches, plums and apricots, plus grapevines, maize/ corn and olives, I also saw the olive presses, preserving factories and even several commercial plant nurseries with date palms, poplars and crepe myrtle.

During my 3 hour drive from the plains of La Mancha I saw several municipal bull rings, one of which, in the middle of nowhere, was actually square and is quite famous. I’m still quite committed to see a bull fight. The plains eventually gave way to rugged mountains and after the mountains came soft pine forests and there were road signs indicating the presence of deer. As I had made a commitment to not deviate from the main road, which incidentally, was signposted Badajoz, Merida and Portugal, (I was driving in a due westerly straight line) sadly I missed the cute agricultural villages which I have been told have their own particular architecture and cultural charm. Next time.

On arriving in Merida, I decided to fill the hire car with petrol and when I pulled up
at the petrol station, I was assaulted by the sound of piped and very loud Country and Western music – not even in Spanish! What a shock after the environmental peace of Almagro.

My accommodation, the Merida Parador is a made-over Convent. It is very elegant and very cool in the heat of the day. Merida itself is a walking town and I was so glad to give Avis back their car and to explore the town on foot.

Roman architectural ruins are everywhere and I first encountered the Roman Bridge when walking back from Avis. It is extraordinarily long as the Guardiana River is incredibly wide. I read somewhere that a flood had washed some of the bridge away and the Romans simply rebuilt and extended the bridge span by adding more arches. The contemporary bridge of a single span construction is a little upstream and is a 4 car causeway with a central and very wide bike and pedestrian section complete with park benches for resting and viewing the beautiful river. No wonder the Romans came here.

Before coming to this performance, I was ‘ a mad dog and English men’ type of tourist braving the heat to examine not only the Colosseum and the Ampitheatre but also the Temple of Diana. I trust that the photos will provide a sense of the wonder of this place. First of all in contrast to the theatre, the colosseum accommodated 20,000 people. The Roman sense of spectacle is something I believe still exists today and I have a sense that it is a traditional offering provided for the masses. In some ways I think the bullfight is an extension of gladiatorial sports but at this stage I have no hard evidence of that, except that bullfights were also put on to entertain nobles and visitors.

This evening’s show, The Golden Ass, turns out to be a huge GP performance and remember the place is full! I appreciate that a Director of a Classical Festival needs to provide something for all comers and just as the television stars had filled the space in Almagro, the star of this show is Raphael Alvarez known as El Buro…and the audience loves him.

He appears to be around 60 years of age and has skillfully adapted Aupelius’ huge work of magical longings, sexual intrigue, murder, incarceration and ultimate liberation.
A one-man, three piece band, raconteur tour de force. It seems he might have localized some of the content, but after his opening gambit, delivered in amongst the audience and reminiscent of a live TV host, he held the audience in the palm of his hand.

Rafael Alvarez, who is a very well respected and renowned theatre, film and tv actor looked incredibly small in the huge space but he certainly delivered a huge show. He started at 10:45 and finished at 1:45 with a 15 minute interval. With tickets ranging from €13.0 to €39.00, I think you’ll agree, it was pretty good Box Office, and Spain needs all the help it can get just now.

A newspaper interview with ‘El Brujo’ gives an incite into his experience of being involved in the Merida Festival.
Rafael Alvarez ‘El Brujo’ ACTOR Y DIRECTOR. ESTRENA ‘EL …
http://www.elperiodicoextremadura.com/…/rafael-alvarez-el-… – Translate this page

As I look back at the photos of Merida and the Roman theatre, it has to be up there in terms of experiences and proves once more the value of seeing world theatre in situ.


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