A NATION IN DEFEAT
"THE PERSIANS" by Aeschylus.
Directed by and starring Lydia Koniordou.
City Center, 130 W. 55 St., NYC.
Sept. 16-20, 2006.
For tickets call 212-581-1212 or www.citycenter.org. $35-75.
Reviewed by Glenda Frank
The National Theatre of Greece has brought American audiences a rare treat: six performances of the neglected "The Persians" by Aeschylus in (modern) Greek. The production is stunning, but, like opera, it makes demands on the viewer. Watching it, it is difficult not to hear criticism of the American presence in the Middle East. Iran, not Iraq of course, is the contemporary name for Persia, but there is a decided spill-over effect. Other theatre groups -- the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC, this year and the Pearl Theatre in 2004 – have staged productions in English, but the National Theatre production surpasses politics. It is a moving and cathartic experience.
"The Persians" (472 BCE), perhaps the oldest extant drama, is about a military campaign against the Greeks by Xerxes, the leader of a superpower and the son of Darius, a king whose very presence inspired awe and tribute until he was defeated by the Greeks at Marathon. Xerxes’ invasion is both revenge on the Greeks and an opportunity for the inexperienced king to make a name for himself. Instead his vastly superior forces are routed and scores of his finest leaders are slaughtered.
Set before simple stadium steps that will be lighted in various bold colors from below (Lili Kentaka, set and costumes), the play progresses slowly, building in subtle intensity. In an eerie silence, underscored by electronic music (Takis Farazis, composer), the chorus of 20 elderly noblemen enters in small groups. They freeze in postures of fear as each newcomer appears. All wear long silver mail, some with turquoise, some with taupe cloaks, vests, and turbans. They fear that the rumors of defeat are true.
The opening is the most difficult section for the audience. The three screens with supertitles above and flanking the stage are filled with obscure references. It is almost impossible to read and admire the superb staging. The success of the production depends on how quickly the viewer finds a compromise between reading, listening and observing. The trick is in reading less, looking and listening more, but the struggle to appreciate the production is well worth the effort.
The appearance of the eight choral messengers confirms the rumors. They are living ghosts in their long silver mail and yellow boots, bareheaded, the bright lighting (Lefteris Pavlopoulos) bleaching their faces. As they recount the Greek trickery and divine intervention that enabled the small enemy fleet to demolish their powerful navy, the bodies of the nobles and returned soldiers tremble violently or sway as though avoiding blow. The choreography of grief and horror (Apostolia Papadamki) is individualized within the groups and of interest no matter where you look. Their anguish is made personal as the ancient leaders talk of mothers drowning their breasts in tears, aging parents, and a city "yearning for the young men."
The Queen-Mother Atossa (Lydia Koniordou), a majestic presence in a dark blue gown, her long white hair gathered at the nape of her neck, joins them in their lamentations. She offers a frenzied libation to summon the spirit of her husband, Darius (Yannis Kranas), from the Underworld. He rises from the darkness and fog, a white colossus towering above the stage. "The blessed king" is enraged by the difficult journey back to the world of the living and by his son’s hubris. He declares that Xerxes’ has offended the gods and caused Persia’s defeat. Atossa doubles over in grief. At City Center, the appearance of Darius is a coup de theatre, but for the ancient Greek, it must have looked like the appearance of one of the gods.
Classical Greek theatre was a religious experience, with invocations to Dionysus and other deities written into the tragedies. Aeschylus shaped this work into a warning to his countrymen to curb their growing appetite for war and to recognize that their victory had been decided by the gods. The Persians, he has the messengers say, suffered unnatural extremes, ice by night, a burning sun by day.
In the third movement, Xerxes (Christos Loulis), young and handsome, enters a defeated hero, robotic, frozen. With multiple angry voices, the chorus of elders blames him and he accedes. As they ask after individuals by name, his body reacts as though he is receiving spear thrusts, knife wounds, blows: "my heart screams with my limbs," he cries. This questioning sounds so much like a recitation of the name of Holocaust and Ground Zero victims that the time gap is bridged for a moment and we, too, enter the mourning. Xerxes’ humble acceptance of responsibility and his patent grief calm their rage and transform him into the choral leader. They too begin to lament with their bodies, to feel the emotional blows as physical assaults. With terrible cries, they rent their clothing at his command and toss it into a pile. He is once more their king, leading them through bereavement . It is a transcendent close to a magnificent presentation.