Friday, April 06, 2007

The Theatre of Dionysus

After several weeks in Athens, I finally get to make the great pilgrimage which every theatre-maker who comes here has to make. I climb the hill of the Acropolis, I walk through ancient Agora, and, carved into the southern slopes, I experience the space where this strange and obsessive art took birth: the Theatre of Dionysus.

Approaching the space from the southern entrance of the Acropolis site, you stumble on it almost unawares, entering through the stage right parados, like an ancient character coming from the city. Like so much else, this convention makes sense when you see the space in its reality. Stage right was the city because that was where the city was: stage left was the sea because, as you look over the theatre and the landscape, you can glimpse the shoreline in the stage left distance. This tells us something essential about this foundation of theatres: that it was absolutely engaged in the reality of its context. For all its mythological and apparently esoteric subject matter, the theatre of the Greeks was about the present moment, asserting and claiming its space at the heart of this mother of democracies. And that’s why it has to be an open space: because it is visibly in the heart of the city, and it is about open-ness in the public discourse. That’s why the dodgy events in Greek drama – the murders, the suicides, the self-mutilations – all happen offstage, in the closed private space of the skene, while in the open space of the orkestra, the chorus, and the audience they represent, debate these events and attempt to find a moral sense in them.

Everything about this form and its huge potential as a force for democracy makes sense in this space. Greek theatre was a compulsory attendance for the citizens of Athens, in preparation for legislation and jury service; and the auditorium is vast. But an auditorium, a listening place, is what it is. The acoustic is amazing – indeed, the space actually resembles nothing so much as a vast ear carved out of the hillside.

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