(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/16, 2023; Photo: The Greek theatre in Syracuse. Photograph: Gaspare Urso’ )
Playing in the vast ancient amphitheatre, imaginative new productions of Euripides and Aeschylus find fresh nuance even in this huge space
How best to stage the great Greek classics? The fashion in Britain is for intimacy. But there are other alternatives, as I found on a visit to the ancient Greek theatre in Sicily’s Syracuse where everything is on a massive scale. The auditorium, carved out of a hillside, seats 5,000. The stage is 27 metres wide and 44 deep; acting, direction and design are correspondingly epic. Yet I discovered, in the two productions I saw, that psychological detail is still achievable even in this vast arena.
Seasons of the Greek classics began in Syracuse in 1914, continued spasmodically but only became annual events in this century. Scanning the records, you find that many famous directors, including Peter Stein, Luca Ronconi, Yannis Kokkos and Irene Papas, have worked there. Among the translators, the name of Pier Paolo Pasolini stands out. Each eight-week season blends a well-known title with others less familiar. This year Medea and Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound kicked off the programme, with Peace by Aristophanes and a multi-media spectacle about Ulysses still to come. After July, selected productions will go on tour around Italy.
This is all the impressive work of the Istituto Nazionale Del Dramma Antico (National Institute of Ancient Drama) but I was relieved to find that a respect for the past was matched by a regard for the present. On a basic level, non-Italian speakers are offered an earpiece translation and a text in English. But my first discovery at Medea was a brilliant essay in the programme-book by the play’s translator, Massimo Fusillo, which suggests that Euripides pioneered the use of the inner monologue allowing us to get inside the protagonist’s head. Fusillo argues that this leads ultimately to Macbeth, Milton’s Satan and modern TV series such as Breaking Bad and Gomorrah. The play’s director, Federico Tiezzi, goes further by saying he sees Medea as “a clash between an archaic society and a post-industrial society” and compares Jason to the “great boisterous Ibsen titans from John Gabriel Borkman to Torvald Helmer in A Doll’s House”.
All this is heady stuff but how does it work in practice? Tiezzi goes out of his way to stress the symbolic nature of the conflict in which Medea is told that she will be forced to leave Corinth never to see Jason or her children again. Medea initially sports a fearsome bird-like headpiece, her children wear fluffy rabbit-heads and Creon, the king of Corinth, a crocodile-mask. The female chorus, meanwhile, are blue-clad skivvies with pails and scrubbing-brushes. But the great revelation comes in the relationship between Medea and Jason.