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‘Greeks for (and “against”) Greeks: deconstructing tragedy in contemporary directing practice’





Today, several years deep into what still calls itself the postmodern era, theatre directing continues to stimulate passionate discussions on the ‘rights and wrongs’ of revisionist readings of classical texts. Formal innovation and hyphenated/hybrid forms influenced by the interaction of the live and the digital, the human and the mechanical and the audience’s immersion or distance from the event on stage have infiltrated most theatre genres. It is no surprise, therefore, that Greek tragedy has also been prone to startling, radical and controversial renderings. In Greece, for most of the twentieth century and going, theatre makers have turned to tragedy as a means of paying homage to their cultural identity and also challenging further their artistic sensibilities, bearing, as they do, the added ‘privilege’ or ‘burden’ of their native heritage. This brief analysis touches –if quite minimally— upon productions/adaptations of the Greek plays by established directors such as Theodoros Terzopoulos and Yannis Houvardas, as well as by the younger generation practitioners Angela Brouskou and Costas Philippoglou.

From the early to the mid 1990s, Greek theatre practice started to gradually emancipate itself from the strict mandates of adaptation criticism, which had been repeatedly pointing a finger to those irreverent or heretical artists who no longer viewed the genre of tragedy as ‘sacrosanct.’ Wishing to frame tragedy’s fascinating remoteness in a style that would be less declamatory and formulaic than the one that had dominated the theatre for the greatest part of the twentieth century, Greek directors have been consistently updating, revising and reformulating ancient myths through contemporary cultural and conceptual lenses. In this respect, they often borrow from the deconstructive but also imagistic practices of postmodernism, sacrificing linear story-telling in favor of markedly sensorial dramaturgies that rely on visual and aural impressions. Notably, the ancient amphitheater of Epidaurus, where a lot of these productions are staged, has become the locus of contention regarding the role of the director as auteur, that is, as (co)author of the theatre text.

Indeed, following course on the work of their international peers (for example, Tadashi Suzuki, Peter Stein, Arianne Mnouchkine, and more recently, Katie Mitchell, Ivo van Hove, Crystof Warlikowski and Jan Fabre, to name but a few), Greek iconoclasts generate fierce controversy over the rights and wrongs of auteur practice, furthering the discussion on the ethics of directing. What adaptation theorist Linda Hutcheon calls ‘postmodern paradox,’ a simultaneous ‘enshrining’ and ‘questioning’ of the past (126) has indeed provided a platform for the interrogation of what Patrice Pavis, in turn, terms ‘dusting’ of the text, which evokes an ‘idealist assumption according to which, correcting classical language is all one needs to do to reach the level of fictional world and of the ideologemes reduced to an objet fixe, a mixture of ancient and modern times’ (1986, 5). Today, experimental directors in Europe and beyond no longer shy away from confronting the remoteness of the classical work; Instead, part of the struggle becomes to expose the formal distance that separates us from the time of its birth and provide fresh insights to the understanding of a genre that is at once familiar and profoundly strange.

Thanks to a variety of cultural, social and economic factors, at the dawn of the new millennium Greece saw a proliferation of alternative theatre spaces, an intense festivalization of the major cities and an updating of training methods brought back to the country by artists who had spent several years studying abroad. Interestingly, the changed landscape in the performing arts has been primarily characterized by the introduction and systematic application of a non-Realistic, deconstructionist aesthetic on the stage. Borrowing forms and methodologies primarily from the West, Greek directors now treat tragedy with a more critical eye, frequently investing their staging with irony and parodic elements. In effect, (modern) Greeks turn to (ancient) Greeks for inspiration and the comfort of connectedness, while also turn against them in order to solidify their own contemporary (European) identity, which to many appears quite separate from their country’s celebrated but irrevocably gone past.

Theodoros Terzopoulos and Yannis Houvardas belong to the same generation of directors who as early as the mid 1980s first introduced to their native Greece a distinctly formalist aesthetic, together with new perceptual codes for appreciating the dramatic canon. In their function as writers of the theatrical event they have tackled the works of the three tragedians giving themselves permission to explore how the words of the text can be attuned to new rhythms and how the plays’ specific cultural circumstances can be channeled through a point-of-view that captures their perennial vitality while remaining true to today. To do justice to their work, one needs surely forego any moralistic notions that identify adaptation with acts of transgression, and experimentation with sabotage and provocation. While Terzopoulos and Houvardas have been well established in their pioneer director status in Greece for many years, Angela Brouskou and Costas Philippoglou have only recently claimed their own share of artistic reputation.

In addressing Greek tragedy, these theatre makers have in different ways and forms recontextualized its temporal and spatial aspects, some decrying discursive language in favor of a manifestly physical-plastic discourse, others reconceptualizing character and rethinking delivery of speech, and almost all problematizing the notion of the ancient Chorus. The generous application of postdramatic (such as the emphasis on the kinetic and the visual) and of postmodern (namely, the intrusion of pastiche as well as of parody) elements in their performances is fundamentally an expression of their desire to break free from a tradition of staging tragedy by approximating what Pavis calls ‘archeaological reconstruction’; essentially, an attitude anchored on the erroneous assumption that it is possible to recreate the staging conventions and conditions of an era that is no longer familiar or pertinent to us. Renouncing the existing bombastic style of acting, well matched to older productions’ reliance on period costumes and quasi-archaic stage design, the directors we are discussing have worked systematically at reinventing the tragic form, each in his/ her own unique ways.


1. Theodoros Terzopoulos

Terzopoulos’ experimental work on tragedy has taken him across the globe, a fact that has in turn infused his productions with the aesthetic principles of different cultures and traditions from both East and West. Having studied at the Berliner Ensemble and worked closely with German playwright Heiner Müller, while later researching physical forms from Japan and India, Terzopoulos has been presenting adaptations that mix Artaud’s appeal to the senses –his ‘poetry in space’– with Brechtian distancing and Asian forms of movement.

In his productions of Greek plays–among the most emblematic being his multiple versions of The Bacchae, the Persians and Prometheus Bound, reworked over a number of yearsTerzopoulos always focused on what he called a ‘nucleus’ of meaning, concerned with specific themes that surface in each play (such as, for example, heroism in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound or mourning in Euripides’ Bacchae). Far from creating an empathetic relationship with the audience, he wishes to bring home to the modern spectator the elemental forces inherent in the genre of tragedy. To do so, he has built a rigorous physical idiom that speaks beyond and across different cultures and linguistic barriers. Opting for energy and not emotion per se, instead of overly ‘psychologizing’ the tragic characters, he chooses to evoke archetypes; similarly, rather than taking the spectator through the minutiae of the plot, he delves deeper into the actual myths that had inspired the tragic poets themselves and foregrounds whatever feels vital in his reading. In this respect, the term ‘adaptation,’ which he identifies with recourse to reductionist, particular-case aesthetics does not sit comfortably with him:

I don’t do adaptation. Rather, I go straight to the archetypes; anthropomorphism, animal forms, these things. And in this respect, beyond lament and guilt, beyond mourning even, new vistas have opened up in my exploration of the form of tragedy. (Qtd in Karali 2008)

Equally vehement is his refusal to bend tragedy’s structure and stature in order to create ‘plausible’ characters. He is adamant that tragedy, being an ‘open form’, cannot be turned into chamber drama:

[Tragedy] has several levels, which are extremely dense. We can only interpret few of them, but the greater part remains unexplored, adjusting itself to new social, political and human conditions. We can adjust the timelessness of wars, modernize it, transfer it to human situation, to the city, and other contemporary matters, such as the environment, to the issues of love and death, even to cloning; but we can never transcend certain principles that have to do with self-concentration, the grand stature, the grand energy . . . because we can never whisper those issues by adapting them to the new circumstances. (Qtd in Karali 2008)

For Terzopoulos, making meaningful theatre starts from the need to remember, to reclaim memory in a time of amnesia (McDonald 203), as well as to discover ‘the possibilities behind each word, each syllable, each letter, even’ (qtd in Macdonald 208) and realize them through ritual. The reason why his work feels important and urgent is that at a time when most of the so-called alternative theatre actually fails to provide an original voice, reproducing ad infinitum naïve –if provocative and ultimately pretentious—paradigms of representation, Terzopoulos’ art remains loyal to the need to explore fundamentals, to put out there what seems impossible to express (Sidiropoulou 2016, 32).[1]

2. Yannis Houvardas

Houvardas’ treatment of the classics has won him ever-lasting notoriety ever since his work in Notos Theatre Company in Athens back in the 1990s. Former Artistic Director of the National Theatre of Greece, he has always featured a tempestuous relationship with the canon, being consistent in his strategy of extreme and thorough reconceptualization of classical plays. Whether he stages Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Goethe or Chekhov, the premise remains the same: the work is updated, and while the source text remains mostly intact –even if interspersed with contemporary songs and ample cultural references— the action is ordinarily transposed into a setting manifestly different from that of the original.

Houvardas’ recent readings of Euripides’ Orestes (2010) and of Aeschylus’ The Oresteia (2016) can serve as a springboard for additional questions on the ‘splendour’ and the ‘misery’ of interpreting the classics’ (Pavis 2013, 204), respectively. While in both productions the directorial point-of-view filtered out whatever might have passed for ‘antique’ detail, the two plays’ relocation to today stimulated quite a different type of audience response.

In the case of Orestes, the idea of translating the Chorus of young, curious, but ultimately ‘insignificant’ women of Argos into a group of international students visiting the ancient site of Epidaurus and gradually becoming drawn into the very fabric of the tragedy, provided the director with a solid and imaginative base for addressing the ever-troubling ‘Chorus problem’: Arriving at the theatre, the students are confronted by Euripides’ dramatic characters. Engaging in a live ‘conversation’ with them, across time and myth, they establish a dialogue with the ancient text itself, eventually assuming the collective role of the Chorus. Thus, they participate in the play actively, while the characters’ problem ‘becomes their own, the pendulum of crime dangerously looming over their heads’ (Ioannidis 2010). Affecting the production’s scenography, the reimagining of the Chorus is accounted for in terms of ‘reframing’:

[Conceiving the Chorus in Orestes] I thought: what if among those young girls, there had also been some boys, could [this Chorus] function as representative of today’s generation, which has a very superficial relationship with ancient Greek tragedy, the ancient civilization, the theatre of Epidaurus, but also, with the political issues that the play brings forth? Which it experiences, but does not fully realize or analyze? [. . .] The Chorus enters the stage hyper-naturalistically. It does not stand out from the rest of the Epidaurus spectators. There is no choreography and neither is there any music. The two worlds are united through a modern code, but there is a slight difference: the protagonists are more stylized, abstract and poetic, while the Chorus is more everyday. (Houvardas qtd in Georgakopoulou 2010)

Significantly more time-conditioned, Houvardas’ production of The Oresteia has also been less fortunate in its critical reception. Many critics reacted to the trilogy’s being shrunk down to a ‘pocket version,’ castigating it as ‘intensely arrogant, intensely dynamic, intensely sick’ (Kaltaki 2016). In evoking the atmosphere of a post-world war II Greek drawing room, complete with sofas, small tea tables, lamps, and popular anthems of the times, Houvardas curiously domesticized Aeschylus’ tragedy, while also failing to steer clear of extravagant, supernatural effect, such as, for example, the fog and smoke emanating from the beautifully lit box leading into the entrails of the palace. Quite unconvincingly, Clytemnestra becomes a hostess who introduces her guests into the evil house of Atreus in an apron, an image resonating with connotations of housewife perfection.

Houvardas’ defense of his work is put forward succinctly:

I’m always trying to keep to the essence of things. There are so many moments in the choral parts that seem impenetrable to us, because they point back to complex mythological stories in relation to other historical facts, that feature repetitions and a propensity towards lyricism. [In these moments] there is room to keep to the essence, the information, the style, and not to injure the play or Aeschylus [. . .] Even if I wanted to, I have never staged a production in which I am disrespectful to the theatre. I simply spoke through the play about those issues that were imperative to me. (Qtd in Loverdou 2016)

Yet, his disclaimer notwithstanding, the relationship between source (Aeschylus’ trilogy) and target (Houvardas’ Oresteia) texts is so loose that even the sharp irony that the director imbues his production with ultimately escapes us. We may laugh uneasily at Orestes’ magnified eyeballs under his geeky spectacles or at how Cassandra is carried onto Agamemnon’s shoulders like a sacrificial lamb with whom he occasionally fools around. We may feel amused at Electra’s portrayal in her Sunday School best or at goddess Athena’s and god Apollo’s gaudy costumes, and at the Goth male Eumenides in long hair and mustaches; True, we tend to admire Houvardas’ bold and ever-expanding ingenuity. Yet, we eventually distance ourselves from the performance, just as the director distances himself from the metaphysical and the civic import of the play in his desire (conscious or unconscious) to de-dramatize and demystify. In this sense, the contemporary/updated/thoroughly localized frame that the mise-en-scène establishes becomes a trap, which prevents a timeless flow of the text in ways that may have indeed been originally intended. If we are watching a family drama, we are still a long way from being moved by those irreconcilable forces beyond all things human, which actually set it into motion.

3. Angela Brouskou

Because of the high production demands in staging tragedy, there haven’t been many younger generation theatre-makers who had the opportunity to work on the genre. In this respect, Angela Brouskou has been one of the very fortunate few Greek female directors to present her vision of the Greeks in Epidaurus. Brouskou’s company, Chamber Theatre, has held a reputation for experimenting with classical plays from a political angle, while also looking at them as opportunities to test the limits of corporeality against forms as stylized as those of the Greek plays.

Brouskou’s take on Sophocles’ Electra at the Athens Festival in 2006 was followed by her production of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon at Epidaurus in 2008, whose revisionist staging caused high controversy among the spectators. In one remarkable instance of the performance, for example, the actor playing Agamemnon appeared in a sailor’s cap, adorned with garlands that he had presumably collected during his travels in some exotic land. Although Agamemnon’s cigar and whisky flask, as well as the watermelon that the messenger carried with him on his way back from Troy may have irritated some, it was the treatment of the Chorus that caused the greatest uproar. Depicted as a group of sycophants who sidled up to the state tyrant, they acted as a cluster of dogs, licking up to their master. Several other elements in staging and characterization revealed Brouskou’s desire to reconsider the ways in which tragedy can be made relevant, namely, its dialectical relationship to contemporary society (Sidiropoulou 2013, 170).

The more recent Bacchae (2014) placed the inherently ritualistic elements of the play within a modern-time setting filled with couches-thrones and reclining beds interspersed along different parts of the stage. The mixed Chorus of Bacchantes (consisting of women and men) was both stylized and frenetic, especially in the scene in which the Maenads run back and forth wildly, groping for the wine that Dionysus sprinkles them with, or, notably, in their bacchic frenzied dances. The god Dionysus, performed by a female actor (Aglaia Papa), was also duly ‘formalist’ in its conception. Dressed in a black suit and looking quite uncharacteristically ‘composed’, s/he ironically matched Pentheus’ portrayal as a Nazi-type autocratic ruler, who obediently changes into drag costume in the climactic scene of the play. This being said, in general the eclectic costume design (for instance, the female performer impersonating Tiresias wearing a cape over a mere slip and a bra) sabotaged rather than enlightened the otherwise moving performance. At the same time, the daemonic element was also comedically pronounced, especially as embodied in the blood-shed presence of Agave. On occasion, what should have been a horrifying effect ended up striking one as merely parodic: such was the scene of the staged earthquake over Semele’s grave, which, according to one critic, ‘shook like the bed in the Exorcist’ (Sarigiannis b. 2014.)

4. Costas Philippoglou

Philippoglou’s intelligent physical theatre work has informed his readings of the Greek plays in startling ways. A director and a performer trained in the UK next to the Complicite, Philippoglou impressed the audiences of Epidaurus with his visceral and unpretentious approach to the text, which helped him integrate all elements of design and sound into a unified whole. His productions of Sophocles’ Philoctetes in 1014 –and soon to follow his ‘Beckett meets Aeschylus’ version of Prometheus Bound in 2015 became emblematic in their aesthetic, emotional, yet also highly political stance. Thrilling both audiences and critics alike, these productions came as somewhat of a relief after a series of pompous and flippant festival stagings of the Greeks, and provided an optimistic statement that directing Greek tragedy today in a way that is both contemporary and meaningful can still be possible.

At some point the director had argued that what drew him to tragedy was the fact that while it seemed fundamentally static, it was actually permeated by movement that struck right into the heart of the subconscious (qtd in Sella 2015). Therefore, it is no surprise that his directorial take on Philoctetes, served admirably by a strong cast of actors, was primarily physical.

Conjuring the idea that our world perhaps needs moral restructuring, Kenny McLellan’s set design evoked a modern construction site, where the all-male Chorus of seven worked on moving wood and iron items to build a variety of structures, including bridges and ladders. Interestingly, the Chorus was choreographed freely in actions that seemed fully integral to the play’s dramaturgy. Τhus the iconic metaphor of construction represented a vision of the world on which we are to build. Contemporary in its minimalist aesthetic, the acting area was defined geometrically, yielding a huge arena space physically contained within a long cyclical bench. In this space, the performers balance on moveable structures loosely resembling see-saws. The outside ‘fence’ parameter of the stage was often lit up in striking blue, while the change in color was also manifest in the lighting scheme of the floor, which alternated between black and white, created by lighting designer Nicos Vlassopoulos. In the spirit of the abstracted set design, the costumes were also elegantly timeless (linen jackets, dress shirts, and so forth), their earthy hues providing a fascinating contrast to the metallic colors of the set.

Similarly, the three male protagonists of the play (Philoctetes, Odysseus and Neoptolemus) seemed at ease with the world of the play, their movement ebbing and flowing seamlessly to reflect the dramatic tensions of the text. At certain moments, the Chorus remained static –its different members spread all over the stage to create resonant tableaux vivants, which would later give way to explosive moments of physicality. Thus, what might have been stiff stylization on other occasions was giving way to a kind of fluidity of movement that seemed to embrace the rhythms of the play itself.

Speaking of the text: While Philippoglou refrains from ‘messing around’ with the play’s structure, he does introduce outside elements that facilitate and heighten its understanding. For example, he stages the opening scene by having the protagonist read an excerpt from Seamus Heany’s adaptation of Philoctetes,A Cure at Troy (1991):

Philoctetes. Hercules. Odysseus.

Heroes. Victims. Gods and Human Beings. (Prologue, 1)

Ultimately, Philippoglou was praised for his clarity of vision, which was also translated into a clarity in staging. What was quite obvious from the beginning was that his intention was not to ‘prove himself smarter than Sophocles’ text (Sarigiannis a. 2014). Instead, his sense of theatrical poetry is that of subtlety and nuance –the silences become text and the imagery is more than just ordinarily beautiful: it is meaningful, dynamic and relevant. One such memorable instance is the moment in which the Chorus members share the role of Hercules on microphone, while sheets of book pages float over the stage, reflecting something stronger than mere theatre magic: a felicitous strike of the right metaphor, which comes from a careful, visionary reading of Sophocles.

In the end, Philippoglou’s Philoctetes steered clear from any quirks of ‘directorialism’; On the contrary, the production succeeded in getting the artist’s predominant form (physical theatre) to serve his reading of the tragedy, rather than manhandle it. Never does the strenuous movement in the performance feel arbitrary or disconnected –instead, it becomes so necessary that it is hard to imagine the action without it.

In Conclusion

The dangers of deconstruction and revisionism have repeatedly fed the discussion on adaptation and the limits of directorial freedom, given that unless developed intuitively, an originally fresh idea can slide into mannerist pattern. However, many straightforward renderings that claim affinity to the ancient conventions of performance fail to either move the spectators or invite critical understanding or both; in such ‘orthodox’ productions, the original text often falls into deep slumber and eventually fades into oblivion, as if collapsing under the weight of the centuries that is has carried on its shoulders. Ιndeed, much of modern theatre’s inability to arouse strong reactions in today’s disillusioned audiences can be attributed precisely to the fallacy of recreating–or slavishly aping–the imagined conditions of an era that are no longer applicable or interesting to us (Sidiropoulou 2015, 45).

What Patrice Pavis terms archaeological reconstruction has long ceased to be the ‘representational ideal of a classical work’, ignoring, as it does, the unique circumstances of the audience at the point of reception and thus resulting in an echo–rather than a distillation–of the original story (2013, 207). On the other hand, the term ‘contemporary’ has also been abused by otherwise well-meaning experimentalists, its alluring connotations sadly bound to the clichés of deconstruction. In describing as historicization a process of interpreting plays ‘from the point of view that is ours at the present time’, with situations, characters and conflicts shown in their historical relativity, Pavis, once again, creates a useful typology, which draws attention to the dangers involved in the artists’ tendency ‘to explain the present too much, by forcing the plays to say what suited us at the time.’ (2013, 208). That said, rather than being confused with the everyday or the ‘realistic’ and the ‘vernacular’, ‘contemporary’ could ideally function as a barometer of pertinence, measuring the level of relevance of the original material to situations and attitudes familiar and meaningful today. Through their innovative work, the directors skeletally featured here have added further ammunition to the argument that we can no longer retell the stories of the Greeks without first considering the factors that can still render them relevant today.


­­­­Heaney, Seamus. A Cure at Troy. A Version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes. London: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991.

Houvardas, Yannis. Interview to Myrto Loverdou. ‘There can be no Politics without Deception’ To Vima, 18 June, 206. Accessed 11 September 2016. - http://www.tovima.gr/culture/article/?aid=808348

..._. Ιnterview to Vena Georgakopoulou. ‘Who’s Responsible for Young People’s Depression?’ Ta Nea, 24th July, 2010.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism. History, Theory, Fiction. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.

Ioannidis, Grigoris. ‘Orestis: Faithful to Euripides, Open to Today.’ Eleftherotypia, 2nd August, 2010.

Kaltaki, Matina. ‘This was not Oresteia’. Lifo, 11 July 2016. Accessed October 2nd 2016. - www.lifo.gr

McDonald, Marianne. Ancient Sun, Modern Light. Greek Drama on the Modern Stage. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Pavis, Patrice. Contemporary Mise en Scene. Staging Theatre Today. London: Routledge, 2013.

..._. ‘The Classical Heritage of Modern Drama: The Case of Postmodern Theatre.’ Trans. Loren Kruger. Modern Drama 29.1 (1986): 1-22.

Philippoglou, Costas. Interview to Olga Sella. ‘I Wish I Would Only Direct Tragedy’, Kathimerini, 16 August 2015.

Rodosthenous, George, editor. Contemporary Adaptations of Greek Tragedy. Auteurship and Directorial Visions. London: Bloomsbury, 2017.

Sarigiannis, Yorgos a. To Tetarto Koudouni, September 7, 2014.

…_b. To Tetarto Koudouni, 10 August 2014.

Sidiropoulou, Avra. ‘Directors’ Theatre in Greece. Stages of Authorship in the work of Michael Marmarinos, Yannis Houvardas and Theodoros Terzopoulos.” Gramma Journal of Theory and Criticism Vol. 22. 2016.

..._. ‘Adaptation, Re-contextualisation and Metaphor. Auteur Directors and the Staging of Greek Tragedy.’ Adaptation. 2015 8: 31-49.Oxford Journals . (Oxford University Press). First published online: November 2014 doi: 10.1093/adaptation/apu037.

..._. ‘Greece.’ In International Women Stage Directors, Fliotsos, Anne and Wendy Vierow, eds. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2013.

Terzopoulos, Theodoros. Interview to Antigoni Karali. ‘Τragedy Needs Stature,’ Ethnos 29th June, 2008.

[1] For more on Terzopoulos see Sidiropoulou, Avra, ‘Greek Contemporary Approaches to Tragedy’ in Contemporary Adaptations of Greek Tragedy. Auteurship and Directorial Visions. Rodosthenous, George, editor. Forthcoming Bloomsbury, 2017.