Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 December 2008
Issue No. 926
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Nehad Selaiha

Medea in Alexandria

Nehad Selaiha is stunned by the phenomenal attendance at the Greek Theatre Arcadia's performance of Euripides's Medea at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina

When I stepped into the Great Hall of the Conference Centre at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina on Thursday 27 last month, I was stunned. I had been there previously on several occasions for concerts and performances; but never before, not even when the great Neveen Allouba gave her extremely popular Christmas concerts, or prestigious troupes from Europe performed during the library's annual Mediterranean Forum for independent theatre, had I seen such a huge audience. The awesomely enormous, fan-shaped auditorium was packed full, with not a single empty seat in sight, except in the few rows reserved for the sponsors of the event, members of the Greek community in Alexandria, Greek journalists who flew over especially for the occasion, local press persons and official foreign and local guests. When the auditorium could no longer accommodate the slew of hopeful spectators who streamed in through the doors, looked anxiously around then withdrew in disappointment, the balcony of the hall was opened, perhaps for the first time since the Bibliotheca was built, and soon it, too, was full and spilling over.

Click to view caption
While the set was historically neutral, Ariadne Mackinnon's costumes had a decidedly modern look

The attendance was phenomenal and profoundly puzzling. When the opening ceremony started, however, and Dr. Mohamed Awad, the director of the Library's Alexandria Mediterranean Research Centre, acting as master of ceremonies, mounted the stage to introduce the event and the troupe, the mystery began to unravel. Though the performance was a joint venture between the Bibliotheca's Mediterranean Research Centre and the Hellenic Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hellenic International Development Cooperation Department and Hellenic Aid (the official sponsors of the Arcadia Theatre non governmental organisation), with several other bodies -- namely: the Hellenic ministry of tourism, the Greek and Egyptian embassies and cultural centres in Cairo and Athens and the Greek consulate in Alexandria -- playing complementary roles and making valuable contributions, the Arcadia theatre troupe, we were told, had actively involved the staff and students at the faculties of arts and law at the university of Alexandria.

Not only had they drawn all the members of the chorus from among the body of students at the English, Classics and theatre departments there, with a sprinkling from the faculty of law at the same university, they had also used the performance as an occasion to establish close contact with the local community and draw its academics, artists and leading cultural figures as active collaborators in the event -- which accounts for the huge attendance. Indeed, this policy of involving the local cultural community and conducting extra-theatrical activities wherever they perform is fundamental to the original conception, philosophy and aims of the troupe. Founded as a non-profit NGO in 2002 by director, writer and actress Katarina Paliou and theatrologist and actress Lydia Palla, the Arcadia theatre conceived of its mission as one that extends beyond the purely artistic -- that is, beyond the mere presentation of classical or modern versions of ancient Greek tragedies for the delectation of audiences whether at home or abroad. Foremost among its aims, in the words of its founders, is to use "education, culture" and the "fine arts, to promote the ideas and cultural prototypes of Greek and, in general, European traditions in order to enforce closer contact and peace between countries and cultures." It also seeks to advance respect for human dignity, regardless of race or colour, supports people with special needs and abilities and champions the causes of environmental preservation and ecological balance.

"In order to accomplish such aims," Theatre Arcadia "organizes seminars, workshops, discussions and symposiums with the creative collaboration of universities, academics, symphonic orchestras, opera singers and choirs, theatre actors, classical dancers, musicians, painters, architects"...etc. The founders' note in the programme also mentions that "Theatre Arcadia pays special attention to the utilization of the local language in bilingual performances." This explains the presence of the chorus of Alexandria university students and their speaking their lines in both Arabic and English, the fact that Effie Rastou's musical score was performed by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina chamber orchestra with maestro Sherif Mohie El-Din conducting, and the academic lecture on the play and its author delivered by professor Mustafa El-Abbadi (of the department of classical studies at the faculty of arts, Alexandria university) at the end of the opening ceremony.

In her dual capacity as deputy director of the Library's Alexandria Mediterranean Research Centre and professor of English literature at Alexandria University, Sahar Hamouda, a diligent and indefatigable cultural activator, was instrumental in bringing the different parties together and organizing their fruitful cooperation. She deserves every word of commendation she received from the speakers and the storms of cheering applause which greeted every mention of her name, especially when it was announced that she would be at the head of the new academic centre for Hellenic studies launched at the Library that afternoon with the purpose of enhancing knowledge and a better understanding of the Hellenic world and its cultural and literary legacy.

The choice of Euripides' Medea as the focus of this cultural venture was a shrewd and happy one. Of the ancient Greek poets, Euripides seems the most modern and his treatment of the Medea myth strikes one as eerily contemporary. Apart from the perennially appealing love-triangle theme at its centre which generates the dramatic conflict, whips up storms of passionate rage and fury and floods of tears, and leads, in conclusion, after many thrills and chills, to desperate acts of violence in the style of the juiciest of melodramas, the play raises and debates issues of great relevance to our times. When Jason taunts Medea about her oriental, 'barbarian' origins, superciliously advises her to thank her lucky stars that she now lives in the paradise of the 'civilized' West, under the rule of Greek law, and admonishes her for not meekly surrendering to the wishes of her lord and master, such issues as racial prejudice, the phobic fear and suspicion of foreigners, particularly Orientals, gender bias and male chauvinism and Western cultural hegemony jump to the forefront of the stage, sinking the years that separate us from the world of the play, bridging the gap between past and present, and making Medea very much a play of the here and now.

Though the press release tells you that Katarina Paliou's directorial conception, or 'vision for the production', was "inspired by the role of Greek tragedy as a vehicle for understanding the human psyche", then quotes her saying: "I place the plot in the presentation of a therapeutic drama to a psychiatric congress", you would be wise to ignore it; the real power and significance of the production lay not in any psychological perspective, but, rather, in its modern visual aspect which forcefully stressed the contemporary relevance of the conflict at hand and the issues it raises. Georgios Ziovas's multi-level set was simple, abstract and rigidly symmetrical: the centre piece was a bare white altar upstage, flanked on one side by a tall mirror, standing on a long sheet of red cloth, and on the other, by what looked like two dummies dressed in folds of white gauze, suggesting a bridal couple.

At the back of the altar was a high platform on which singer Mariza Kock (as the divine voice) sat, swathed from head to foot in golden cloth, with two similar platforms on either side, one carrying conductor Sherif Mohie El-Din in a blue satin costume, with the orchestra ranged before him on graded steps that swept down to the lower lever, while on the other platform sat percussion musician Genny Dourou in a flowing turquoise dress that draped down over the edge of the platform, manipulating a huge tambourine in accompaniment to the divine voice. The three high back platforms were black, and as the light picked up their occupants, they seemed to hang in midair, as befitted the representatives of the celestial domain. The chorus, representing the common people, on the other hand, sat or stood on graded steps on both sides of the avant-scene, or fore-stage, the area closest to the audience.

But while the set was historically neutral, Ariadne Mackinnon's costumes had a decidedly modern look where the human characters were concerned. While Paliou, as Medea, wore a red evening dress with a long trail and Lydia Palla, as the Nurse/ Messenger, was dressed in a pale, greenish, long robe, with a high-waist and long, flaring sleeves, a style that mixes features from different periods, Grigoris Patrikareas, as Jason, wore a white shirt and black suit with a long jacket and carried a red scarf over his shoulder, Alexander Zorbas, as the Tutor/Creon/ Aigeas, had a white shirt and black trousers with suspenders, and Nikos Katis, as the Chorus Leader, was given an all white suit and also carried a red scarf all the time. The chorus, too, were dressed in white linen suits, but in their case, with hoods pulled over their faces, perhaps as a sign of their anonymity as the common people in every age and country. But what really beat me were the long, flailing sleeves of their outfits which reached far beyond the natural length of any human arm. If they were supposed to signify anything, it has completely gone over my head.

As you must have observed from my description of the costumes, the dominant colours on stage were black, white and red, and their distribution round the stage, through the configuration and deployment of the characters and their movement was as rigidly symmetrical as the design of the set. Most of the time, the white-clad chorus leader stood on one side of the stage, near the visible orchestra, while on the other, at the same level, stood the black-clad Jason on the red sheet, gazing at himself in the mirror -- a sign of obtuse self-absorption and chauvinistic narcissism. Only when they talked to Medea did these two figures change their positions. Their presence on either side of the stage forcefully framed the red-clad Medea who mostly occupied the centre area, moving across the stage between them, or back and forth between the white altar upstage and the centre of the fore-stage facing the dark auditorium.

The acting ranged from the highly stylized and declamatory, in the case of Medea, and the naturalistic, in the case of Jason, with the rest of the actors moving across this range at different times and partaking of both styles as befitted the moment. The use of a modern English translation instead of the original Greek text helped in this respect. Though some regarded this decision as an unnecessary concession to a non-Greek- speaking audience, in the interest of comprehensibility, arguing that it was quite needless since the story was widely known, not to mention that the performance was prefaced with professor Abbadi's analysis of the play. Still, and though personally I would have liked very much to listen to the sounds of the words Euripides actually wrote, the use of English created a distance between the actors and their parts, wrenching the conflict out of its indigenous Greek soil and universalizing it, and allowing Medea, with her lisping, guttural English, to sound very much like a foreigner compared to Jason's smooth and refined accent. Again, in respect of the way they delivered their English lines, Medea and Jason formed two opposite poles and the difference between their accents damned Medea as a foreigner and outsider. An interesting feature of the performance was the fact that just by listening to the way the different characters pronounced their English you could spatially and culturally define their position in relation to the Western setting of the play and the degree of their belonging and foreignness.

Another controversial artistic decision Paliou made in her production was the alternate use of Arabic and English in the choral parts. Though it seemed foisted and naïve to some, it allowed the company to work closely with the students of the university of Alexandria, drawing them into the project, and thus fulfilling one of the major objectives of Theatre Arcadia, not to mention the fact that such a measure was effective in drawing a substantial portion of the huge audience that attended the play. More controversial, however, was the end of the play. In Euripides's text, Medea appears at the end in a chariot drawn by winged dragons overhead, with the bodies of the children beside her. Here, however, in a concession to realism, or, perhaps, to poetic justice, or to her Egyptian audience's moral sensibility, Paliou shows us Medea stabbing herself at the altar with the same sword she used in killing her children. The fact that the children she slaughtered were mere dolls does not detract from the power of the moment. In Paliou's production, the only escape route left for Medea, the alien, is self-annihilation.

Euripides' Medea by Theatre Arcadia, directed by Katarina Paliou, Conference Centre Great Hall, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 27, November, 2008.

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