AN INSTITUTION OF UNIQUE CHARM
The Epidaurus Festival, which will be half a century old next year, is deeply rooted in the collective Greek conscience. The Epidavria, as the event was baptised (in an attempt to get rid of the foreign word 'festival') by Emilios Hourmouzios ― the man who managed to turn into reality Dimitris Rondiris' dream ― never lost its charm, not even in its worst moments, and is still the cultural landmark of the summer.
The first person to make the ancient theatre of Polyclitus reverberate again with ancient tragic poetry was director Dimitris Rondiris. In 1938, as managing director of the Greek National Theatre, he presented Sophocles' Electra in broad daylight with Eleni Papadaki as Clytemnestra and Katina Paxinou in the title role. The success of that experiment gave the green light to the Archaeological Council to move on with the restoration of the theatre, continuing in effect the work of archaeologist Panagis Kavadias, who had located the ancient theatre - designed by architect and sculptor Polyclitus in the late fourth century BC - under a densely wooded hilltop. The wise archaeologist had expressed the hope that his discovery would not become just another archaeological site. This is why he left a provision in his will that the inhabitants of the village of Ligourio, who had done the actual digging that brought to light the stonework of the terraces with pickaxes and their bare hands, should be allowed to attend the performances free of charge. For decades, those very villagers were the first critics: no dress rehearsal ever took place without their presence. The Second World War and the difficult years of the ensuing Greek Civil War delayed Rondiris' plans. In 1954, as managing director of the National Theatre again, the drama teacher revived the ancient monument once more. Euripides' Hippolytus was presented at Epidaurus at dusk, and an owl, as if replacing the third bell, marked the beginning of the performance. Even today, spectators know that as soon as they hear the hoot of the owl, the performance is due to begin. The performance of Hippolytus - the dress rehearsal, as it was called, of the festival - convinced even the most reluctant among the decision makers that the idea of an annual festival was entirely feasible. Ten thousand spectators arrived using all forms of transport, by land or by sea, cramming the tiers. Thanos Kotsopoulos, Elsa Vergi, Athanassia Moustaka, Stelios Vokovich and Alekos Alexandrakis (in the leading role) bewitched the public. Leon Koukoulas wrote then in Athinaiki (June 13, 1954): 'He [Rondiris] proved that he was aiming at something much more essential in his productions of ancient drama: to make the public identify with drama.'
THE GLORY DAYS
The following year, in 1955, Emilios Hourmouzios took over from Rondiris as director of the National Theatre and the Epidavria became a regular annual event. Paxinou's unique interpretation in Euripides' Hecuba served as the official inauguration of the new festival. For 20 years, the National Theatre monopolised the performances. With a mixed male/female chorus practising all year round, it wrote some of the most glorious pages in its history. Indisputable sovereigns of the festival during that period were Katina Paxinou and Alexis Minotis. Next to them shone the star of Anna Synodinou, the 'Princess', as she was nicknamed after her successful appearance in the title role of Sophocles' Antigone in 1956, a performance that went down in history as 'Antigone's full house' since it attracted over 16,000 spectators. This was an all-time record that made influential columnist Dimitris Psathas write: 'Such a huge crowd is unprecedented, even by football or baseball standards. All those people came to the theatre for Sophocles, and if this doesn't mean something, what does?' The Epidaurus Festival confirmed the revival of Aristophanes which was first started at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus in 1956, and continued one year later at Epidaurus with Lysistrata. The leading actors were Mary Aroni and Christoforos Nezer, who dominated Attic comedy for years with their performances. Aristophanes became a permanent feature of the Epidaurus Festival.
New Faces and Scandals
The 1960s witnessed the presence of new blood at Epidaurus along with a whiff of scandal. Takis Mouzenidis directed The Madness of Hercules in 1960, a performance in which Thanos Kotsopoulos showed his mettle. Four years later, Alexis Solomos tried his hand at tragedy with a historic performance of Aeschylus' Suppliants, about which Iro Lambrou wrote: 'He showed daring, imagination and inventiveness.' One year earlier, in 1963, under the tutelage of Paxinou, Eleni Hadziargyri interpreted Io in Prometheus, a production that established Alexis Minotis as both a leading director and actor: a new tragedian was born. The decade closed with a huge, silly scandal. In 1969 Evangelos Fotiadis, appointed director of the National Theatre by the military junta, decided that Pavlos Mantoudis' costumes for Euripides' Electra were 'anti-Greek and of communist inspiration' (!) and forbade their use. The performance was finally staged, against the will of director Takis Mouzenidis and the costume designer, with new costumes designed by Kleovoulos Klonis. Thirty years later, in the same tragedy with Lydia Koniordou in the leading role, Kostas Tsianos was praised for using traditional Greek costumes that differed little from those designed for the 1969 performance.
EPIDAURUS OPENS ITS GATES
New faces appeared in the 1970s as well. Spyros A. Evangelatos directed Sophocles' Electra in 1973 with Antigone Valakou, winning a permanent place at Epidaurus. The year 1975 was a great one for Epidaurus: the National Theatre's monopoly was broken and the gates of the theatre were flung open for other companies as well. Karolos Koun and his Art Theatre company staged the famous performance of The Birds and the State Theatre of Northern Greece presented Sophocles' Electra with Anna Synodinou and Nelly Angelidou, directed by Minos Volanakis. In the same year, Alexis Minotis returned to the theatre with his Oedipus at Colonus, a great moment in the history of the Epidaurus Festival.
More companies were added in the 1980s. Among them, Spyros A. Evangelatos' Amphi-Theatre and the Cyprus Theatre Organisation, which earned unanimous praise with Euripides' Suppliants, directed by Nikos Haralambous. In the early '80s, Karolos Koun advanced his research into ancient drama, culminating in Euripides' Bacchae with Mimis Kouyoumtzis as Dionysus. During that time, Maria Skountzou also earned her reputation as a tragedian along with three other actresses, Jenny Gaitanopoulou, Despina Bebedeli and Reni Pittaki. This was also the time when new translations came to aid the performances, like the ones by K.H. Myris (Kostas Georgousopoulos) and Kostis Kolotas. In the meantime, the theatre opened its doors to the popular 'stars' of the day - a policy that was abandoned as soon as it was adopted - and foreign artists like Peter Hall, who initiated a systematic research into ancient tragedy with his Oresteia. The year 1991 saw Leda Tassopoulou's crowning moment in her performance of Sophocles' Electra, directed by Evangelatos. This production also revealed the vast talent of Nikitas Tsakiroglou ― an actor who had earlier excelled in Sevastikoglou's performances ― further proved by his interpretation in Prometheus. Yorgos Lazanis, who parted with the 1980s by directing Philoctetes and playing the main part, brought to the '90s a fresh view on the interpretation of tragedy, along with a new leading actress, Katia Gerou. It was also in the '90s that Mimis Kouyoumtzis proposed his own interpretation of Aristophanes' Pluto and the National Theatre committed itself to big productions for export with actors well schooled in tragedy, such as Stefanos Kyriakidis, who was praised for his interpretation of Creon in a production of Oedipus Rex directed by Vassilis Papavassiliou. In the same decade, Yorgos Michalakopoulos interpreted a different Aristophanes hero each year.
The Epidaurus Festival entered the new millennium with Sophocles' Antigone directed by Yorgos Kimoulis. The institution keeps going strong, open to new ideas and artists who will continue the work of the pioneers: directors, actors and stage designers like Klonis, costume designers like Antonis Fokas, choreographers like Maria Hors, and many others. In 1955 in the Eleftheria daily, Dionyssios Romas pointed out the significance of the Epidaurus Festival in an article that could well have been written today: 'I do not know whether we Greeks understand the significance of the fact that we were lucky enough to witness the rebirth of the babbling brook that gave new life to these dead stones, these theatres, which systematic effort strives to turn yet again into "pan-Hellenic" meeting points, where thousands of modern people gather to pay tribute to art, the only goddess whose worship - though flagging at times - knows no end.'
June 24 - August 27
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