Monday, July 18, 2011
SHAKESPEARE UNDER THE MACEDONIAN MOON – HAMLET IN THESSALONIKI
Reviewed by James Karas
On a hot July evening when Thessalonikeans are strolling along the famous shore of Salonika Bay and the cafés are full of young people sipping frappe, you do not expect to run into Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But it should not come as a surprise. Greece’s co-capital has considerable cultural activity and it is not unusual to see plays from all over the world produced here.
In a park under the shadow of the White Tower there is an outdoor theatre in the classical form called the Theatro Kypou, (Garden Theatre). Near it is the Royal Theatre and across the street lies The Theatre of the Society for Macedonian Studies. That is three theatres within a few meters.
It was at the Theatro Kypou that I found a fine production of Hamlet by the 5th Epochi Technis (Fifth Season of Art) company directed by Themis Moumoulidis. True, it is a spare production with numerous questionable directorial choices and many cuts, shortening the play to less than two hours with no intermission. With lots of doubling up and no extras, the play is done by 10 actors.
The first round of kudos goes to Emilios Cheilakis in the title role. He has a mellifluous voice and a fine delivery that makes prose sound like poetry. His Hamlet indeed goes mad and Cheilakis has developed some exceptional mannerisms to indicate madness. For one, he shakes his head and mop of hair and gives a psychotic laugh. He can be dramatic, comical and confounding - a true Hamlet. By the end of his performance, I was so taken in that I started hearing Shakespeare’s lines in my mind’s ear instead of the Greek translation by Giorgos Cheimonas.
The second round of praise belongs to Eugenia Dimitropoulou as Ophelia. She is a very attractive woman and a very lively Ophelia in the early scenes. She displays extraordinary depth and breadth in her mad scene and gives an overall superb performance.
The third round of applause, somewhat less fulsome, goes to Leonidas Kakouris as Claudius and Marina Psalti as Gertrude. They both showed considerable talent and ability to do the roles but failed to deliver. It could well be directorial shackles that prevented them but their overall accounting of the roles cannot be judged more than satisfactory.
Dimitrios Alexandris as Laertes and Manos Vakouzis as Polonius were good in their respective roles. The latter doubled as the First Gravedigger.
Ilias Zervos was given six roles to play, some of them admittedly insignificant, in which he may be expected to do no more than deliver his lines without falling over his feet. But he is given the role of the First Player who emotes the dramatic speech about Hecuba that prompts Hamlet to deliver his great “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” soliloquy.
Zervos delivers the part of the First Player’s speech that he is allowed with his back to the audience, his feet firmly nailed to the floor and in such a wooden and deadly fashion that the only effect it should have on Hamlet would be to put him to sleep. What was Moumoulidis thinking when he put that scene together must remain a mystery.
Zervos had some company in the wooden acting department from Tony Dimitriou who played Horatio and to a somewhat lesser extent by Panagiotis Exarheas and Alberto Fais who took a number of roles each.
Uneven acting talent is not that unusual even though in this case the gap between excellence and incompetence seemed rather wide. What is more deserving of praise and harsh criticism is the work of the director and costume designer Themis Moumoulidis.
The Garden Theatre has a large circular acting area that simply begs to be used. Moumoulidis set up his loud speakers and some footlights in the acting area and used only a relatively small portion of the available space. The acting area was further confined by a raised platform where most of the action took place. If he had made full use of the space he could have placed his actors much closer to the audience and avoided the use of microphones. The mikes were more than usually annoying because on a number of occasions they simply did not work or produced grinding noises.
At one point Hamlet sees Claudius praying and he does not kill him on the excuse that by doing so he will send him to heaven. In this production Moumoulidis gives a quick light change and Hamlet in fact grabs Claudius by the neck as if to slash his throat. The lights go on and off and Claudius finishes his soliloquy.. We are to know, I suppose, that Hamlet is merely imagining killing Claudius or that he in fact grabbed him by the throat and then left him alone to continue his business. What are people new to the play to make of this director’s choice?
The First Gravedigger is, as indicated, played by Manos Vakouzis with almost no attempt at disguise, not even so much as a hat. What are we to think, that Polonius has become a gravedigger or that the director and his artistic team could not be bothered to disguise the actors who took more than one role. And, oh yes, give the man a shovel. He does not dig the grave with his bare hands.
The final scene usually takes place at the palace but Moumoulidis has it done at the cemetery, in fact right over Ophelia’s grave. I am not sure that this is a bad idea and I fact it is a very interesting twist.
One can rack up quite a number of complaints against Moumoulidis but one has to grant the fact the Cheilakis and Dimitropoulou save the day and provide a fine production.
A few comments about the audience are appropriate. The performance was sold out and the attendees were mostly young people. Ticket prices at €20 for adults and €15 for students were a bargain and surely one of the main reasons for sold-out performances.
Smoking is not allowed in the theatre but that only applies to non-smokers. Whenever I looked around someone was either lighting up or taking a deep and satisfying drag.
The usual warning about use of cell phones was given but, again, that only applied to those who did not have urgent messages to send. When Hamlet was wondering whether “To be or not to be” a young lady near me was sending a text message no doubt asking the same question.
As soon as Hamlet stabbed Polonius another young lady immediately started sending a message, no doubt to the local police reporting a murder. Others gazed at their phones for lengthy periods or explained the play to their neighbours.
In the end, the music from the park, the passing traffic, the sirens, the smoking and text messaging were minor distractions and disappeared under the fine performance of Cheilakis and Dimitropoulou.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare was performed between July 11 and 14, 2011 by the 5th Epochi Technis (5th Season of Art) at the Theatro Kypou, Thessaloniki, Greece..