Thanks to the pioneering classic playwrights, who established one of the world’s greatest dramatic traditions, Europe has enjoyed over 2000 years of theater spectatorship. So who better to perform a contemporary version of Sophocles’ tragedy “Ajax than Greece’s finest contemporary director Theodorus Terzopoulos and established troupe Attis.
Sitting among Cairo’s Greek community in the open-air theater at the Opera House, I imagined myself to be perched high up in the amphitheatre of Delphi, overlooking the stage and the mountains, tense with the anticipation of the first actor’s entrance. This was to be an authentic experience: classical Greek tragedy performed in modern Greek by an actual Greek company. It seemed almost too good to be true.
What followed over the course of the next 90 minutes was both surprising and revelatory. Instead of a romanticized rendition of ancient Greek tragedy, a frighteningly cold production unfolded that wanted to keep the audience intellectually engaged rather than emotionally moved. The production was built around three scenes in which a different one of the three actors would take on the role of the messenger who delivers the news of Ajax’s madness.
The direction was incredibly conservative and the scenes were typically Brechtian. The same movement routines and sections of dialogue were repeated ad nauseam. The blueprint for each scene was that the actor playing the messenger would recount the story while the other two would strike statuesque poses with grotesque facial expressions. The two stationary actors would punctuate the dialogue with various mechanical movements such as swinging a knife down through the air to their sides or turning their heads together and inhaling a sharp gasp.
The fact of the matter is that “Ajax is a story that pulses with such overwhelming emotion that is difficult to bypass or not tap into. Induced by the Goddess Athene, whose help the Greek warrior Ajax had refused, blindness overcomes him so that he believes he is taking revenge on his ungrateful and disloyal leaders for awarding Odysseus the armor of Achilles rather than himself. When he wakes from his intoxication in the morning he realizes that he has in fact slaughtered a field of cattle and sheep.
Ajax, one of the greatest heroes of the battle of Troy, has been disgraced. His jealousy has been exposed, his honor has been stripped and as a result his shame and guilt drive him to suicide.
The point of Attis’ heavily stylized technique is not incomprehensible. The idea is to remind the audience that they are in a theater and that plays have an educational role that outweighs their entertainment value. Brecht wrote didactic plays because he wanted his German audience to leave the theater and act upon what he considered to be the terrible ills of wartime society. As for Attis, they wanted the audience to reflect upon the theme of guilt that (as the program stated frankly) “is absent from the contemporary world rather than to over-invest in the plot or action of the play.
The main drawback of Attis’ rendition is that the routines were too few and too simple. This had the disastrous effect of making the acting repetitive and the production predictable. However the consistency of the cast who remained totally focused at all times and were utterly committed to their cause deserves applause.
There were some fabulous moments of stagecraft, particularly when the death of Ajax was recounted and two bags of water were burst over the actor’s head as the lights simultaneously flashed red. But these moments were rare and were not enough to compensate for the lack of soul.
What you realize after watching Attis is that Greek tragedy is so powerful precisely because it exposes raw emotion. It still communicates a fundamental message about the inherent emotional behavior and psychology of human beings that is as important today as it was 2000 years ago. Our human condition has not changed and Attis illustrated that humans are emotionally instinctive creatures above all.
I can’t help but feel Greek tragedy is stripped bare by a Brechtian interpretation. By removing the audience from sharing in Ajax’s jealousy, wrath and guilt, the audience fails to identify with the character and as a result leave the theater disillusioned instead of inspired. By trying to make the message more prominent, Attis actually achieved the opposite.