The Playgoer: GUEST REVIEW: The Persians

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Monday, September 25, 2006

GUEST REVIEW: The Persians

A new feature at Playgoer! From time to time, I may post reviews by (imagine) other people who have a particuarly interesting perspective on a notable performance in town, or elsewhere.

So today I'm happy to hand over the review box to my friend and colleague Robert Davis, a Greek theatre specialist and PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center. We saw the recent Persians together, on tour from the National Theatre of Greece. Here's Robert's response. I may post a comment later.

The Persians
by Aeschylus
National Theatre of Greece
at City Center (closed)

Reviewed by Robert Davis

“Timelessness” is a word frequently used to describe Greek tragedy. Ironically, so is the word “timeliness.” It seems like every time there is a war on, Euripides’ Trojan Women and Hecuba become as popular as Shakespeare. Although Euripides wrote some of the most powerful plays about war, it is the tragedies of Aeschylus that have dominated the New York stage in the past two years. This trend perhaps reveals something about how New York sees the war; Euripides, popular during the intervention in Yugoslavia, deals with the atrocities of the victors while Aeschylus, in plays like The Seven Against Thebes and Persians, writes about the sorrows of loss.

Persians, written in 472 BC, is the earliest extant tragedy. Set in Susa, the tragedy dramatizes how the Persian citizenry and royalty react to news of the colossal defeat of their armed forces at Salamis, a naval battle that Aeschylus himself witnessed. In a remarkable feat of empathy, the tragedy humanizes the Persians, arch-enemies of Athens - the equivalent of writing a major tragedy about the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, with Osama bin-Laden or Mullah Omar as a protagonist. Despite Aeschylus’ liberality, his play never fails to exoticize and belittle the defeated Persians. Persians depicts the Persians, but it is about the Greeks.

The National Theatre of Greece’s Persians, which played at the City Center over the past two weeks, mined the play for every opportunity for Hellenic self-congratulation. The Persian messengers described the strength and vitality of the Athenian men to rousing patriotic underscoring, and the Ghost of Darius boomed his admiration of the Greeks from a perch on top of the metal ziggurat that filled the stage. Performed in modern Greek, one can hear how often the Persians refer to themselves as “barbaros,” or “barbarian” instead of “Persian,” or even “men.”

Persians is a difficult play to stage. Its static plot, full of Homeric catalogues of warriors and place-names, is a challenge for any modern audience. Recent productions, like the hip-hop musical The Seven (premiered at the New York Theatre Workshop, and playing at La Jolla this season), have tended to experiment with form National Theatre of Greece director and actress Lydia Koniordou has opted for the “cultural” approach to Greek tragedy, which produces the kind of show that constantly reminds you that you are watching an important work of the western canon.

In an age when a production of tragedy tends to skimp on the chorus, it was a relief to see a cast of twenty-four Persian elders (Aeschylus had twelve). The chorus chanted and sung some of their lines to simple, rhythmic music. All of this is carefully reminiscent of the original performance conditions, but missing several key factors that undermined the production. Intended for performance at the fourth-century theatre at Epidauros, which seats 14,000, Persians was crammed on to the City Center stage, which seats around 2,500. Both the Theatre of Dionysos in Athens and the theatre at Epidauros have the audience on three sides. The City Center’s proscenium stage hardly allows flexible staging. The chorus, who remained onstage throughout the play, could only move in two directions: away from the audience and back towards the audience, frequently getting caught in their own steps. Worst of all perhaps was the choral delivery. A Greek friend in the audience informed me afterwards that the choral delivery was so muddy that he had to read the surtitles. Perhaps not a problem in another piece, Persians is almost entirely choral dialogue.

Although the production suffered from an overall poor execution, it is hard to go wrong when raising the dead. While the Persians wait for the arrival of their defeated King Xerxes, they invoke the ghost of his father, Darius, who had also lost a war against the Greeks. After an extended summoning ritual, Darius’ ghost rises among clouds of smoke and dust from the top of the set. Ten feet tall and robed entirely in white, he was a figure to inspire awe (unless you sat above the mezzanine, where you could only see his feet). Ghosts are a rarity in Greek drama, and Koniordou staged it for all it was worth. Darius’ speeches, belted out with superb breath control by Yannis Kranas, are a great example of ancient stagecraft that remains eerie and satisfying to this day. It is unfortunate that our encounter with the dead was marred by Xerxes’ arrival.

According to the text, Xerxes should enter in tattered clothes, singing. In all of the extant Greek tragedies, Xerxes is the only male aristocratic who sings. Instead, Christos Loulis’ Xerxes enters with a heroic demeanor, bravely recounting his loss in Salamis. His costume was slightly disheveled and the manly voice of this Greek television star did not warble for a moment. All in all, this Xerxes was a stand-in for the entire production: manly, self-important, and in utterly the wrong theatre. The National Theatre has been bringing tragedy to New York for years. Let’s hope that they will eventually leave the City Center and move to a larger, outdoor space. At least then we would get a sense of the dynamics of the performance.

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