So on the spur of the moment, I join my friend in an escapade to Epidaurus, to watch Robert Wilson’s meta-post modern rendition of the “Oedipus” tragedy at the legendary ancient Greek theatre of Epidaurus. The play marks the inauguration of the Athens & Epidaurus Festival – a major event for self-respecting cultural aficionados. For those not in the know: The Epidaurus theatre has been around since the 4th century BC and still retains it function to today. You could say it is one of the most spectacular theatrical arenas in the world and, certainly, one of the most unique.
I admit I am averse to theatre and try to avoid it at all costs. The thought of being trapped in a confined space for X amount of time (moreover without access to cigarettes / drinks / food) to watch questionable quality (hey, aren’t they all questionable until after it is too late?) “art” makes me cringe. More so if it entails engaging in a 2 1/2 hour drive to access it. But in this case I am all in, both because I have confirmed the show’s duration to be within my comfort zone (1 hour 15 mins) and because the venture is, on paper, tailored to my tastes: a highly artistic approach. Crucially because I am much looking forward to the drive and blah blah with my friend.
The ride doesn’t disappoint. Chit chat is into overdrive and before we know it we arrive at our destination. After handling the standards (where do we park and how do we find our way back to it?) and a short(ish) walk to the venue we settle on our strategically located seats, offering direct views to the central stage. The theatre is somewhat packed (not at capacity though) and the scenery, as always, breathtaking. As night falls the natural elements wonderfully offset the stage and the ambience is spectacular. Anticipation is almost tangible.
“The show is ritual, slow and elegant. Lights are beautiful and the majestic scene is lighted such as it appears at the same time light, grand and magical. The movements of the actors on the stage are geometrical. For Wilson, Oedipus is the tragedy of the light which blinds to show. An Oedipus without tragedy: a suggestive dreamlike vision. Wilson has accustomed us to his perfection.”
Yeah, not me. This is taken from Robert Wilson’s website (not convinced? Click to check for yourself)
And so it begins. With a -seemingly unending, high-pitched, off-key screech. I cringe and at the same time feel elated to instantly validate my zero-tolerance position on theatre attendance. But I am determined to enjoy the evening. Predictably, there’s tons of things I find annoying: The narrator is too loud, I do not appreciate the consecutive text repetition, I find the gimmicks borderline boring. And they need to do something about the sound system. The crowd is becoming impatient, here and there people commit the forbidden act of speaking out loud, contesting the performance. This is unacceptable.
Yet I am utterly taken in by the spectacle. The visuals are arresting. The spartan set design and lighting effects work wonders with the natural scenery. The narrator is as dramatic as one would expect – even demand. I find the foreign language versions capturing – the German one (which, contrary to the Greek, English, Italian & French, I completely fail to understand) especially so. Eventually I arrive in a state of mental immersion, travelling to abstract emotional places that feel good. This is a success.
As we approach the end I am anxious to see the audience’s verdict. I feel unexpectedly empathetic – as a professional in a relevant field, I understand the copious work that has been invested in this production. I can relate to the distress of the participants at the prospect of a bad reception. The take on the classic play is controversial indeed and I am aware of how this doesn’t fair well with all. I hate the thought of somebody ruining it for everyone because they didn’t understand the point of view or simply because they had a bad day at work. I am in pre-emptive overcompensating mode and vigilant to dwarf ill-advised boos with keen cheering.
My concerns prove unwarranted. Nothing of the kind happens. Au contraire the audience breaks out in enthusiastic applause. Do they feel the same way I do, or are they just genuine theatrophiles? I know not and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the show culminates the way it is supposed to: in glorious appreciation. We patiently wait in line to evacuate. On the way back, after the requisite evaluation, conversation takes a philosophical turn. Everything feels perfectly in place.
A wonderful evening indeed.
P.S.: Predictably, the play gets some fiery critique in the press.