Monday, April 16, 2007


One of the funny things about opera is that, as the performance approaches, you rehearse less, rather than more. It's because of resting voices, and orchestral timetables. So we had a rehearsal on Saturday night, and now we don't get one till Tuesday night. Adrian Thompson was away on Saturday - so I played Chairman Mao. I don't think it's gone to my head.

I took advantage of the break to get on the bus to the Peloponnese for a couple of days. I based myself in Nafplio, and took trips to Ancient Mycenae (you can see the very postern gate through which Orestes escaped, with the Furies in fast pursuit...) and to Epidauros. I'd been very aware of this incredible theatre for a long time - it's required study for anybody interested in theatre space. Peter Hall and Denis Lasdun maintain that the Olivier is based on this space - but the two are so different in spirit it isn't true. The Olivier is basically a very big end stage with a curve to its front and to the auditorium. Epidauros is a vast auditorium, enveloping a circular orkestra by 270 degrees. The skene gets even less of a look-in than at the Theatre of Dionysus: it's so obvious that the open space of the orkestra was the key to Greek performances. The scale is everything people say, and the acoustic is truly incredible. Sitting at the back, which feels about a mile from the stage, I could hear people dropping coins onto the orkestra floor.

But what I had not realised before was the social context in which this theatre was built. It is part of the Sanctuary of Asclepius, the son of Apollo and a god associated with medicine. In other words, this vast theatre, seating some 14,000, is a space of healing. The sanctuary, known as the "cradle of medicine", was a place where people came to be cured, through medicine, and also through mystic processes associated with dreaming. They would sleep in the sanctuary, where they would dream of the god and find their cure.

What more perfect ideal is there for what theatre ought to be? A dreaming space and a healing space. Right at the end of Nixon in China, Zhou En-lai begs "Come, heal this wound". On one level, this is a personal thing, to do with his cancer. But it is also about the profound wounds suffered by China in the 20th century, and the wounds which the world continues to suffer today. As the opera ends, he hears the birds sing, and a new dawn coming, and decides to carry on with his work. So we send the audience out with a sense of the darkest things in our world; but also with a hope of healing, and the balm of music.

At least, I hope so.

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