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Athens: silence and echoing

April 8, 2012

I arrived in Athens a few days ago after a really wonderful few days on lesbos – going to Fara (as I described in my last post) and then running a four day workshop.

Athens is an altogether different experience. It’s a big, difficult, world city which also happens to be in the middle of profound crisis. I’m not going to write of the crisis here, others have done so with much more knowledge than I can, though it is interesting to be here, in the heart of it, after watching with a deep concern from overseas for so many months. I can feel the stress. An old man killed himself in front of parliament the day I arrived, finding that his entire pension had, after a lifetime of careful work and responsible saving, become worthless. Riots. Police everywhere. Metro stations closed. Inhuman capitalism, managed by inept governments, blithely destroying lives for the common good.

And yet also, still, people sit outside cafes in the spring sunshine. Still there is laughing and lovers and the other myriad colour cottons that make up the tapestry of a city’s life. People are not indifferent to the crisis, they live with, through, in and despite the crisis. I don’t know why I feel so passionate about this place, but it is something to do with this – people are singing despite the unfolding trauma.

Two pieces of theatre. On Friday I went to see a show in a sort-of-theatre space in a ruined building in one of the ’emerging’ (i.e. derelict) areas of the city. It was a Lecoq-inspired ‘platform’ performance. Eight performers with no props or changes of costume, making images on three small raised wooden platforms. They were skilled and the direction, especially in terms of the creation and dissolving of images, was tight and imaginative. The show was packed, a diverse group of old and young, well-dressed and not; representatives I suppose of that ‘class’ that is so evident in many cultures and so despised and feared in the UK, the intelligentsia.

The show had lots of popular references which passed me by, songs sung to help define images that had the audience laughing loudly. Good, skilled, popular, clown-based performing. But here’s the thing. The show told three stories from different eras of Greek history, the 30s, the 60s and today. All ended up in conflict between the people and the authorities (a complex situation when young people are conscripted into the army and find themselves on the other side of the line to the side where their sympathy and their friends might stand).

There had been intimations in the show that we might end watching a riot. We did. Suddenly all eight performers were silently shouting and slowly throwing petrol bombs at us. Then they were lines of impassive military/police, receiving the abuse then responding with a clinical violence. Now the theatre was live. There had been a lot of loud laughter during the show and everything was very good natured. Then, skilled, non-realistic, stylised, the event became utterly real. Theatre where a people talked to their own. The last line, from out of the riot, was a protestor saying something like ‘ I will stay here’ . I am a foreigner, but I heard the silence before the applause. Anyone who has read Brook’s description of attending a clown performance in Berlin just after the war, where a clown talked of food to starving children, will know the silence I mean.

Then last night, ‘Echo Chamber’. A smaller audience but a good show. The story is of violence and despair and the end of the world. I wondered if it would resonate here. At the end, as the lights went down, there was a long, long, deep silence. It was the silence you cannot fake and that an audience are reluctant to break with the, sometimes uncomfortable, act of applauding. Afterwards a woman told me that she had been scared to breathe.

Two shows. Neither driven by ‘concept’ or an overt desire to ‘entertain’. Both based on the living presence of the performer’s body with an attentive audience, audiences not demanding distraction, but willing to engage with a work of art to see what they will find in there. Two rooms containing distant echoes and profound silences.

I perform again tonight, then teach next week. Then I take the show and workshop to Crete. Then Thessaolniki. I wonder how Echo Chamber will play away from the hothouse of the capital……

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