Sunday, September 15, 2019

SUPPLIANTS – REVIEW OF 2019 ATHENS FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

When the performance of Suppliants begins at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus in Athens, we hear slow, throbbing, funereal music and nine women dressed in black enter slowly, wailing. There are no words, just a simple eeeeeehhh. The women are the mothers of the Argive chieftains who were killed when they unsuccessfully attacked Thebes. Creon, the autocrat of Thebes, is refusing to give the bodies to the mothers so they can give them a proper burial.

Suppliants is another chapter in the woes of the Royal House of Thebes. You will recall that King Oedipus inadvertently killed his father and married his mother. On finding out what he had done, he blinded himself and left the kingdom to his sons Eteocles and Polyneices. The brothers had a falling out and Polyneices eventually got help from Argos and with six other chieftains attacked the seven gates of Thebes. Polyneices and his allies were all killed as well as Eteocles. That left Creon in charge and possession of Thebes. It is here that Suppliants begins.  
The production under review is a joint effort by the National Theatre of Greece and the Cyprus Theatre Organization and stands as an example of Ancient Greek Tragedy at its best.

It provides what can be done with imaginative use of the Chorus. Director Stathis Livanthinos and Choreographer Fotis Nikolaou make outstanding use of the group. The simple lament expressed at the opening of the performance is not indicated in the text. The play begins with a lengthy speech by Aethra (Katia Dandoulaki), the mother of Theseus (Akis Sakellariou), who gives background information and sets the stage for the play.

In addition to the simple but effective choreography of Nikolaou, the production benefits from the music of Angelos Triandafyllou.  He has composed moving lamentations that are sung with superb expressiveness by the Chorus. The women can sing, and their chants are a major part of the success of the production.

Theseus is the king of Athens and is supplicated, indeed begged by the mothers to rescue their sons’ bodies so they can give them proper burial. He is arrogant to the point of rudeness and questions King Adrastus of Argos about the wisdom of his people’s involvement in the attack on Thebes in support of one of Oedipus’s sons. Sakellariou, dressed in pure white, his arm stuck up in the air when he orates, is the epitome of youthful haughtiness.

King Adrastus is essentially a man who has been defeated and humiliated as a result of some serious errors. He is desperately trying to maintain some pride and dignity. Christos Sougaris does a fine job as the pathetic king.

There is a Messenger (Andreas Tselepos) who tries to outdo Theseus in arrogance and argumentativeness and a Herald (Harris Charalambous) whose job it is to bring the good news of Theseus’s victory over the Thebans and my goodness he is eager to do it.

Notably fine acting is displayed by Doundoulaki who shows sympathy for the bereaved women and is able to stand up to her conceited son and be instrumental in changing his mind. 
Suppliants is not one of Euripides’ best plays and he seemed to be running out of material near the end and may have padded a bit. There is a melodramatic scene with Iphis (Thodoris Katsafados), the father of Evadne (Katerina Loura). The latter gives a dramatic performance when she appears near the end of the play in a bridal gown and goes to the funeral pyre to burn with the remains of her husband.

We then hear a beautiful ode sung by the children of the slain chieftains. The choir is in the audience and they stand up and sing from their seats. Quite beautiful.

As is if that were not enough, the goddess Athene drops in to tell us to love Athens. Theseus has already told us how great Athens is as a democracy compared to the autocracy of Creon. In fact the play has a decidedly political angle. The ancient myth of the Royal House of Thebes meets the present (422 B.C) as the city-states are involved in a brutal civil war that will destroy them. Euripides wants to praise Athens and he does.

The costumes are basically modern. The women of the chorus wear black dresses and Aethra in a white robe with a red dress looks stylish.

The stage has indications of stumps of burned trees with one of them set on a mound. That will serve as the symbolic pyre on which Evadne is burned.

I have nothing but praise for a brilliantly conceived and superbly executed production.
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Suppliants  by Euripides in a coproduction by the National Theatre of Greece and the Cyprus Theatre Organization  in a translation by Giorgos Koropoulis was performed on September 5, 2019 at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus,  Athens, Greece.   

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press. greekpress.ca

Saturday, September 14, 2019

OEDIPUS REX – REVIEW OF 2019 ATHENS FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

Ancient Greek Tragedy may be difficult to do well but the current production of Oedipus Rex is a prime example of what a brilliant director can do with a superb cast.  The production by Athinaika Theatra, directed by Konstantinos Markoulakis was first performed at the Ancient Theatre of Dodoni in Epirus and was shown at Epidaurus before setting on a tour across Greece. I caught its penultimate performance at the Melina Mercouri Open Air Theatre in Vironas, near Athens on September 3, 2019.

Oedipus Rex tells part of the tragic story of the Royal House of Thebes in which the decent and capable king is discovered to have unwittingly killed his father and then married his mother. Fearful of the oracle that prophesied that he would be killed by his son, King Laius tied the feet of the newborn and gave him to a servant to dispose of him. 

The child was Oedipus whose name means swollen feet and his life was saved by a shepherd. He grew up in Corinth but as an adult he returned to Thebes and saved the city from the murderous Sphinx by solving the riddle. He became king.

But Thebes was struck by plague, people were dying, the crops withered, and women aborted their children. The oracle at Delphi through the blind seer Tiresias tells them that the city must be cleansed of the murderer of King Laius. The search ultimately leads to none other than Oedipus having killed Laius without knowing that he was in fact his father. 

Dimitris Lignadis gives an outstanding performance as Oedipus. We see him as the imperial king of Thebes, a commanding presence who shows genuine concern for the people who have come to the palace. He displays the strength and assurance of a leader determined to find the truth with the knowledge that he is innocent.

Lignadis has a powerful voice, a marvelous stage presence and a superb dramatic range. We see his Oedipus unravel slowly as the terrible truth is revealed to him. When he realizes what he has done he lets out a semi-sung howl that echoes against the cliffs that embrace the theatre and reverberates down the millennia to a similar howl roared by King Lear many centuries later. A bravura performance.
Amalia Moutousi as Jocasta makes a splendid consort for Oedipus. She is regal, self-assured, supportive of her husband and refuses to believe the rumours. Again, we see all of that undercut by the truth that is sweeping her husband off his feet. She is destroyed by it. A superb performance.

The Chorus of Theban elders is handled with outstanding ability and variety. They come carrying dolls with their feet tied. Half of them carry musical instruments such as drums, a saxophone, cymbals and an accordion. The music, especially the use of the drums, is a significant addition to the drama.

The performance is done on a completely bare stage. There is not even an indication of a palace door. Nothing is needed when the text is treated with amazing effectiveness by the actors and the chorus.

Kudos are well deserved by the supporting actors. Nikos Chatzopoulos as Creon, Konstantinos Avarikiotis as Tiresias, Giorgos Ziovas as the Messenger, Giorgos Psychogios as the Shepherd and Nikolas Hanakoulas as the Messenger.
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Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, translated by Giannis Lignadis, was performed on September 3, 2019 at the Melina Mercouri Open Air Theatre, Vironas, Athens, Greece.  

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press. greekpress.ca

Thursday, September 12, 2019

THE TEMPEST – REVIEW OF 2019 RODA THEATRE PRODUCTION

James Karas

The Melina Mercouri Open Air Theatre located in the suburb of Vironas, Athens is embraced by steep cliffs that give it an imposing look. The semi-circle of risers appears temporary but does give the impression of an ancient theatre. There Theatre Roda staged Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

It is an interesting production with some thought-provoking choices by the director, Maria Peretzi.  She has decided to include live music accompaniment throughout the performance. The production begins with a flutist on stage and ends with a piece for piano. The Tempest, with its magic, spirits and other-worldliness, can certainly use music and for much of the performance the piano music as background worked well.

At the end of the play Prospero asks the audience to release him with its applause. Stamatis Logos as Prospero finishes the Epilogue and kneels. The piano player keeps playing…and playing...and playing.  The audience starts getting restless and applauds to make him stop. He does not. Another round of applause. No result. Finally, we get up and start leaving the theatre. He does stop and the cast comes out for a curtain call. What was the director thinking when she allowed this?
All the characters are miked and often the only way to distinguish the speaker is by watching for whose lips are moving or who is moving his hands. I feel that words coming out of a loudspeaker in the theatre lose some of their nuances or emotional impact. And you can count on one mike not working and several rubbing against a costume and making a screeching racket. It may be my imagination, but I make no secret of my dislike of miking except in situations where reaching the audience is just too difficult.

The production for most of the time felt like a concert performance rather than a fully staged one. The actors looked at and spoke to the audience for an inordinate amount of time. King Alonzo (Dimitris Nellas) rarely looked at the other characters and appeared as if he had been nailed to the ground. He may be the worst example, but my comments hold true for almost everyone, including Prospero. Interaction was more coincidental than planned.

Shakespeare never stinted on comic scenes and characters and in Trinculo and Stephano he has provided a couple of doozies for The Tempest.  Trinculo (Christos Valaoras) is a jester and Stephano (Alexandros Batsis) is a butler who run into the wild and stinking Caliban (Stavros Kappas). They get drunk and are supposed to be hilarious, but they produce only a handful of twitters. 
 
Logos as Prospero is reasonably impressive, but he lacked a powerful presence. My thought was “no wonder his brother booted him out of Milan.” He is dressed in a heavy, silver robe that seemed anything but easy to handle.

The lovers Miranda (Tzela Anagnostopoulou) and Ferdinand (Thomas Gotsis) have our support from the start and we wish they would look at each other all the time instead of the audience.

Peretzi has three Ariels (Ioulia Ventikou, Mania Metaxa and Patty Papageorgiou) and I have no idea why.

No effort was spared in the design of costumes. There are more than a dozen costume designers listed in the program. Much of the effort went into designing the costumes of the spirits and nymphs including Ariel. We get colourful, elaborate costumes that are quite impressive.

It is a production with minimal interaction among the characters, maximum delivery of lines with little movement, accompanying music that works well until overdone and gorgeous costumes. The loudspeaker may have made the actors sound more monotonous than they really were but all of these issues reflect the director’s choice.
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The Tempest  by William Shakespeare in a production by Roda Theatre, in a translation by Dimitris Peretzis was performed on September 1, 2019 at the Melina Mercouri Open Air Theatre, 58 Neapoleos, Vironas, Athens, Greece.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

OUR TOWN – REVIEW OF 2019 IASMOS PRODUCTION IN ATHENS

James Karas

Where is Grover’s Corners?

Walk a few hundred meters past the park known as Pedion Areos along Leoforos Alexandras, to number 106. On the third floor of an unprepossessing building you will find the Lambeti Theatre Terrace, an open-air, 300-seat venue. There you will find a marvelous production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and that is exactly where Grover’s Corners is located. In Athens.

The production by Iasmos Higher School of Drama is directed and dramaturged bu Yiannis Kakleas and it captures the charm, humour, touching drama and beauty of the 1938 Pulitzer Prize winner.  
 Our Town tells the story of life in a mythical American town between 1901 and 1913. The story is narrated by a Stage Director (Dimitris Kouroumbalis) who informs us that we are seeing a reenactment of what happened in Grover’s Corners at the beginning of the last century. Kouroumbalis is an excellent host who leads us through the story with charm and good humour.

The three acts of the play are titled Daily Life, Love and Marriage, and Death and Eternity and that encompasses the entire cycle of life. George Gibbs (Giorgos Amoutzas) and Emily Webb (Alexandra Tavoulari) are neighbours and classmates in school. We follow these attractive youngsters at home where their mothers try to get them to eat their breakfast, behave well and do well. They fall in love haltingly, tenderly with large doses of humor and we follow them through poignant and funny wedding and then on to Death and Eternity. Just splendid performances.

George’s parents Dr. Gibbs (Yiorgos Yianoutsos) and Mrs. Gibbs (Iphigenia Asteriadi) and Emily’s parents Mr. Webb (Dimitris Degaitis), the newspaper owner and Mrs. Webb (Fay Kokkinopoulou) are loving, worried, decent and wonderful people and the actors convince us of that unfailingly.

The same can be said of all the other actors.

Kakleas seemed very enamored of video clips and there are a number of them projected at various stages of the play. Some of them are clips from silent films with views of small-town America and comic scenes with actors like Buster Keaton. Some of the clips are made with the actors on stage and made to appear s if they are old, silent movies. Even the scene with Professor Willard (Spyros Katsianos) is made to look as if it were an old film clip.
The last scene in the cemetery during a funeral is very moving. We meet the dead people of the town seated in arrow as the funeral of Emily is in progress. It is a wonderful scene that raises the play above a merely sentimental comedy.  

There are some, perhaps inexcusable, infelicities. All the actors had a cord around their neck which held a microphone near their mouths. That means we heard everyone from one loudspeaker located at the top of the stage. It was extremely annoying, unsightly and surely unnecessary. Most of the actors are professionals and surely they can project their voice all of the fifty feet to the back of the theatre. 

The set by Manolis Pantelidakis, is appropriately unrealistic. The houses of the two families are indicated on each side of the stage with location changes indicated in the middle of the playing area. Full marks for stage design.

I found the reaction of the audience unpleasantly surprising. There were very few laughs, to put it politely, in a production that I found funny and enjoyable. There were times when I was the only one laughing. A fine production deserves a better reception.
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Our Town by Thornton Wilder, in a translation by Minoas Volanakis will play until September 22, 2019 at the Theatro Lambeti, 106 Leoforos Alexandras, Athens, Greece.  

 James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press. www.greekpress.ca

Sunday, September 8, 2019

PROMETHEUS BOUND – REVIEW OF 2019 ATHENS FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

Ancient Greek Tragedy is never easy to produce successfully and Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound is no exception. It is a static play – the hero is after all tied to a rock throughout – and it takes imagination and superb directing and acting to bring the piece to life.

The Municipal and Regional Theatre of Patras has done a marvelous production for the 2019 Athens & Epidaurus Festival. Stavros S. Tsakiris directs and dramaturges.

The critical component of the production is Kathryn Hunter as the rebel god Prometheus. Yes, she is Greek and if you must know her real name is Aikaterini Hadjipateras. She was born in the United States, trained in England and works there as well.

She is a small, agile and lithe woman with a deep voice. Prometheus is tied to a post but has about ten feet of chain that gives the god considerable mobility. Hunter as Prometheus is angry, defiant, fearless and utterly captivating. She pulls on her chains, defies the other gods and gives a splendid performance. If you never imagined the arch-rebellious god being brilliantly played by a woman you will see bravura acting and you will think of Hunter’s performance forever after.
Kathryn Hunter as Prometheus. Photo: Marilena Stafylidou
Tsakiris has done some intelligent dramaturgy to make the play more approachable. He has added an old Narrator who introduces the play and appears throughout as an observer and commentator. Nikitas Tsakiroglou paces around the stage and does a fine job as our companion to the performance.

Prometheus rebels against dictatorship and the abuse of power by Zeus who wants to destroy mortals. He rises against the intended genocide by giving us fire which is in fact the source of civilization. Zeus does what dictators do best: he resorts to torture and sends Prometheus to the wild mountains where he is tied up to a rock where birds will snack on his liver.

The task is performed by a reluctant Hephaestus, the blacksmith of the gods, played sympathetically by Dimitris Piatas. The bad guys, if you will, are Kratos (Alexandros Bourdoumis) and Via (played by four actors – Dimitris Pagonis, Periklis Skordilis, Nikos Bakalis and Antonis Vlassis). The names Kratos and Via mean Might and Violence and they are Zeus’s enforcers.

Hermes (played by three actors – Antigoni Fryda, Kostas Nikouli and Iliana Mavromati) is another enforcer who is sent by Zeus to threaten Prometheus.

Dividing the lines of a single character among several actors can lead to confusion and worse. Tsakiris prevents this from happening by providing subtitles in Greek and English which identify the speakers. It is a splendid way of not only identifying the speakers but also of reducing the static nature to the performance.

Prometheus has friends as well as enforcers from Mount Olympus. The beautiful and tragic Io (Peggy Trikalioty), one of Zeus’s mortal loves, is one of them. She has been turned into a cow by the jealous Hera and shares Prometheus’s fate. He discloses significant information to her including prophecies of the future.  A fine and tender portrayal by Trikalioty.

I think the hardest part of Greek Tragedy for modern productions is the handling of the Chorus. Tsakiris scores considerable points in his handling. He provides musical ambience for them and their speaking, dancing and singing are handled sensibly. The Chorus Leader (Periklis Vasilopoulos) distinguishes himself and we appreciate the Chorus’s performance throughout. The Chorus consists of the daughters of the god Okeanos (Gerasimos Gennaios) but Tsakiris includes men and women in the ensemble.  

In the end the production “works”. Hunter’s superb performance, the fine acting by the rest of the cast, the satisfactory handling of the Chorus and the excellent pacing, provide an exceptional experience of Ancient Greek tragedy.
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Prometheus Bound  by Aeschylus in a production by the Municipal and Regional Theatre of Patras, in a translation by Dimitris Dimitriadis was performed on August 30, 2019 at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus,  Athens, Greece.  www.greekfestival.gr/

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press. www.greekpress.ca

Friday, September 6, 2019

AGAMEMNON, LIBATION BEARERS and EUMENIDES – REVIEW OF PRODUCTION OF ORESTEIA IN GREECE

James Karas

There is no shortage of productions of theater, modern and ancient Greek and from around the world, every summer in Greece. Athens is the epicenter with a strong magnetic pull towards Epidaurus. The largest producer of events is thus named the Athens-Epidaurus Festival. Epidaurus, with the largest and most famous theatre has only a handful of performances largely because of the delicate condition of the venue. It makes up for that by the large numbers of spectators it can accommodate, more than 10,000 per performance. 

But the good news is that every production that is shown a couple of times at Epidaurus goes on a tour to smaller cities around Greece so if you missed it in Epidaurus, you may be able to catch in, say, Thessaloniki, if you happen to be there on the right dates. I caught a performance of Aeschylus’ Oresteia on Αugust 26 and 27, 2019 at the Theatro Dassous.

The trilogy is performed over two nights with Agamemnon for the first night and Libation Bearers and Eumenides on the second night. Different directors are assigned to each play and the result is interesting but uneven. I considered Libation Bearers as the most successful with the Eumenides the least praiseworthy of the three. They all have their virtutes but some had more fine points than others.

AGAMEMNON

Agamemnon is directed by Io Voulgaraki with Evi Saoulidou as Clytemnestra. The large playing area of the Theatro Dassous has only a square, wooden scaffold in the centre with a cracked mask mounted on it for a set.  There are some people entering and exiting the playing area before the play begins with one of the most famous scenes in all drama. It is the Watchman (Stelios Iakovidis) who is sitting on the roof of Agamemnon’s palace waiting for a signal that the Trojan War is over. The signal will come from beacons lit at strategic points between Troy and Argos. That is what Clytemnestra has devised so that she will be informed pronto of the end of the war and the return of her husband Agamemnon. She has something in store for him. 
                                        The Chorus in Agamemnon. Photo: Patroklos Skafidas
Clytemnestra is a complex character who must welcome the returning hero Agamemnon who is bringing Cassandra as his war trophy and bears responsibility for the sacrifice of his daughter Iphigeneia at Aulis. Clytemnestra has taken on a lover, her husband’s cousin Aegisthus (Alexandros Logothetis), and the two have been plotting the murder of Agamemnon.  Saoulidou does superb work in showing Clytemnestra as a powerful character able to dominate, pretend to welcome her husband and then killing him in his bath.

Cassandra is a tragic figure. She was Apollo’s mistress who gave her the gift of prophesy. She has become Agamemnon’s slave and mistress and she knows her fate and the fate of everyone else. Despina Kourti is regal, tragic and outstanding in the role.

Agamemnon is a relatively minor character but Argyris Xafis brings out his arrogance in a good performance.

The Chorus as usual plays a major role in the play and constitutes a major problem for the director. In this play it is made up of the elders of Argos who were not sent off to the war in Troy. Voulgaraki uses various methods for their delivery of their lines. They speak in unison, separately and chant. She provides a clarinet obbligato for a short stretch and otherwise gives us a reasonably good rendition of an almost impossible task.   

LIBATION BEARERS

Libation Bearers is performed together with Eumenides the following night, directed by Lilly Meleme and I think is the most effectively done of the three plays.

Years after the murder of Agamemnon, Orestes returns to Argos under orders from Apollo to avenge his father’s death. He meets his sister Electra at his father’s grave and the plot develops until Clytemnestra is killed. 
                                                                  Photo: Patroklos Skafidas
The Chorus is made up of Argive women, dressed in black dresses with trains. Monika Erika Kolokotroni provides some astute and fitting choreography and movements for the Chorus. Meleme and Kolokotroni do not allow the Chorus to remain static but make it part of the plot development so that it is involved even during dialogues. There is a  good variety in speaking and chanting and in the end the Chorus becomes a major contributor to the high quality of the production.

Giannis Niarros presents Orestes as a young man with a mission to commit perhaps the worst crime imaginable but pushed by divine edict and encouraged by his friend Pylades (Giorgos Stamos). Orestes is joined by his sister Electra (Maria Kitsou) who gives an emotional speech during the recognition scene with her brother. In addition to them, he has the encouragement of the Chorus and his old Nurse (Agoritsa Ikonomou).

Orestes needs to fool the wily and suspicious Clytemnestra of Filareti Komninou and manage to get her lover Aegisthus (Giorgos Chrysostomou) back to the palace alone. Komninou must be gracious, tough, delighted at the death of her son Orestes without revealing it and a master of emotional blackmail. How can you kill your mother from whose breast you were fed as a baby? She begs for her life but it does not work and he kills her.

With proper choreography and use of the Chorus and a fine cast Meleme produces a fine-tuned and well-paced production. 
EUMENIDES

I wish I could say the same for Eumenides as directed by Georgia Mavragani with Dramaturgical Advisor Dimosthenis Papamarkos.

The Eumenides are the reformed Erinyes or Furies who pursue Orestes to punish him for the murder of his mother. We find him at Delphi where the Furies have pursued him. The priestess Pythia appears to pray. She finds Orestes and notices the Furies sleeping, having been knocked out by Apollo.

The ghost of Clytemnestra appears and goads the Furies to do their job and punish Orestes. But he has been spirited away to Athens by his defender Apollo. He goes to the Acropolis to pray to Athene. Everything that he has done has been in obedience of Apollo.

What follows is the first jury trial with Athenian citizens asked to decide on Orestes’ guilt or innocence after hearing evidence. The trial is as much a dramatic event as a paean to Athens for the development of a system of justice. Politics and drama blend.
Orestes and the Chorus in Eumenides. Photo: Patroklos Skafidas
That is a very brief outline of the plot of Eumenides. Attempting to follow it in the production is very trying. You go to the cast list before the performance begins seeking the names of the characters and the actors. Forget it. Mavragani simply lists the names of the actors in alphabetical order and good luck in figuring out who represents whom.

The main characters of the play are the furious and relentless Furies who are prepared to defy the gods in their pursuit of Orestes. Mavragani and choreographer Alexia Nikolaou present more a muddle than a clear role for the Chorus. The furious ghost of Clytemnestra is effective but after that clarity is evasive.

Mavragani and her dramaturgical advisor divide the play into some sixteen scenes plus or minus an Introduction and an Exit. Each scene is announced. Two or more actors deliver the lines of one character at times and the pace is slowed down to a crawl and clarity goes by the board. In the end, this is a deeply disappointing production.

The Oresteia is based on the great myth of the curse of the House of Atreus. The murders come to an end and in the Eumenides a system of justice is established for the House of Atreus and for Athens. Aeschylus’s trilogy has resonated across the centuries and is invariably judged as one of the greatest masterpieces of Western drama. The political idea of trials by jury has also survived.
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Agamemnon by Aeschylus was performed on August 26, 2019. Libation Bearers and Eumenides were performed on August 27, 2019 all at the Theatro Dassous, Thessaloniki. www.n-t.gr

James Karas id the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press. www.greekpress.ca 

Monday, September 2, 2019

VICTORY – REVIEW OF 2019 SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Tim Carroll’s choice of Howard Barker’s Victory for the current season at the Shaw Festival may be described as “bold and courageous.”  As Artistic Director of the Festival, choosing plays is his job and as a Director who he has chosen to direct it.  He directed the play in Hungary in Hungarian in 2002 and Barker is relatively unknown in Canada and it may have looked like a good idea to introduce him more broadly to Canadian audiences.

Barker wrote Victory in 1979 and the play was first produced at the Royal Court Theatre in 1983. Barker considers it “an acknowledged masterpiece” and Carroll tells us that “discovering Howard Barker blew my mind wide open.” So far so good. 
 Tom McCamus as Charles Stuart with the cast of Victory (Shaw Festival, 2019). 
Photo by David Cooper.
The production in the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre was confusing, inept, pretentious and a crashing bore. There were some impromptu reviews by people who never returned after the intermission and the ones that stayed showed little enthusiasm. There was no curtain call at all.

Before the performance begins, Assistant Director Brendan McMurtry-Howlett tells us that the play takes place in the aftermath of the English Civil War. That’s the one where King Charles I was executed by Oliver Cromwell and his followers who established a republic. It did not do well, and the monarchy was re-established with the return of Charles II in 1660.

Charles II is hell-bent on taking vengeance on his father’s murderers and in this play he exhumes the traitors’ bodies, including that of Justice Bradshaw who signed the death warrant for the king. Upon finding the corpses, they are “executed” and their head is placed on a stake in public as an example to the people.

We meet Scrope (Patrick Galligan) who was Justice Bradshaw’s Secretary and he is regretting having betrayed his master by disclosing his place of burial to the King’s soldiers. The latter use foul language including the c word as if they were ordering something at Tim Hortons. The use of colloquial, sexually explicit language is rampant throughout the play and it loses what little shock value it may have after a few minutes.

Talk of sex, display or almost display of genitals, suggested rape, masturbation and whatever else you want to imagine are all there and they neither shock, nor disgust and you and you wonder why they are there at all.

At the end of the first act, we are told to follow a cast member who leads to a rehearsal room in the basement for the Interlude of the play. Most people are seated for the 15-minute scene in a dark area that is supposed to be the vault of the Bank of England. I think this is supposed to be the beginning of capitalism.

The play lasts for 2 hours and 50 minutes.

The published version of the play lists 34 characters plus beggars. The program lists 12 characters only with the note that other parts are played by members of the ensemble. No guidance as to what the other parts are or who will play them. The list gives only the surname and occupation of the characters and they are frequently referred to by their first names in the play. If you can’t remember who is who of the 34 roles that Barker lists or the 12 who play 34 roles, I guess, that is your tough luck. Exit stage right at intermission.

The irony of the whole thing is that there is a superb cast who could have done marvels and may even have made the play comprehensible. Martha Burns plays the widow Bradshaw, a tough woman who has seen a great deal during the ugly Civil War. Deborah Hay plays Nell Gwynn, the actress and mistress of Charles II. She is described as a prostitute. Tom McCamus plays Charles II who is rude, creepy and probably a psychopath. Tom Rooney is Ball, a royalist who becomes a republican and god knows where he stands or what he does.

All is done on an empty stage with characters walking on and off with the audience trying to figure out who is on and who is off and what in the world they are doing.

Bold and courageous? Perhaps. But there are many other factors to be considered in choosing a play and how it is presented. Carroll’s boldness and courage seem to have misfired.
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Victory  by Howard Barker will run in repertory until October 12, 2019 at the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press. www.greekpress.ca