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Prometheus Unbound – An ancient tragedy in open air performance

Does seeing a play in another language enrich our experience or only confuse us? Phoebe Hennell takes on Aeschylus' Prometheus Unbound in Modern Greek adaptation, with contributions from Andreas Janssen.

A magical thing about ancient plays is how they break down temporal barricades surrounding us. We are teleported to a sanctuary, protected from the passage of time, from which we witness a story through the same eyes as the ancients. The actors’ voices we hear bouncing around the theatre steps could easily be the echoes of the original cast, ringing from the past and transcending eras. In that moment – an 85 minute-or-so-long moment – there is no difference between us and every generation stretching back to antiquity. Unified in this theatrical dimension, we share the same laughter, heart-wrenching pity, gasps, bittersweet tears and awe.

My August was idyllically spent in the Greek city of Thessaloniki for a summer course. As a student of Modern Greek seeking cultural immersion, upon hearing about a local summer theatre festival I unhesitatingly booked tickets. I settled on ΔΗ.ΠΕ.ΘΕ. Πάτρας’s production ofAeschylus’ timelessly exalted tragedy Prometheus Bound, somewhat dauntingly performed in Modern Greek. Having studied the language for a year, I was excited for this irresistible opportunity to test the limits of my listening ability. However, it is not renowned for being an easy language, hence the phrase “it’s all Greek to me”. Its vast array of synonyms, algebraic grammar and topsy-turvy alphabet (“ρ” counterintuitively makes an “r” sound) mean that fluency is still a distant ambition.

Arriving at the entrance out of breath as the result of a feta-fuelled run from a nearby taverna, I inhale my surroundings. The lantern-lit path to the open-air Forest Theatre (Θέατρο Δάσους), as the name suggests, winds through a shadowy hill-top forest. In the centre stands the 20th century concrete theatre construction, emblematic of the ancient model. The chattering audience, perched on flights of stairs, surround the semi-circle stage like the age-defining rings of a tree. My journey had involved a steep, bumpy ride up to the charming old town – the only surviving part of Thessaloniki that did not perish in the Great Fire of 1917. The lanterns dim, the starry, olive-black sky intensifies. The performance begins.

Prometheus, a Titan, is guilty of stealing fire from the gods and gifting it to mankind for their survival. As punishment, he is chained to a mountain and put on trial. Throughout, he endures tortures, shrilly laments his fate, and receives visitors including the mortal Io, a former lover of Zeus who has lost all grasp of sanity. Prometheus clings onto one consolation: only he holds knowledge of the fate that threatens to overhaul Zeus’ tyranny.

For a modern audience, Prometheus Bound isan incredibly difficult play to grasp: not only is Aeschylus’ text weighed down by its grave symbolism, it also references a plethora of background myths that are meaningless to us. Fortunately, this performance breathed a fresh, modern dynamic to an otherwise static play. Characters were split up over multiple actors ordressed in a way antithetical to their character; appearing as a jester was the personification of Strength and Violence. Often the tableau seemed more like a carnival than a solemn tragedy; yet precisely this ‘strangeness’ and contrast divested the play of its anachronisms. 

Without an interval, our eyes – much like Prometheus – were bound to the stage. This refusal to fragment the performance allowed immersive and unbroken continuity, anchoring us to the land of deities. I found myself leaning forward in my seat, as though those 20cm closer to the stage would give me any more leverage for understanding the lines. In an epoch where human achievement seems limitless, this journey back to a mythical past reminds us of the limits of our omnipotence, just as Prometheus reminds us of the need for basic compassion over authority. My mouth went dry – my jaw had unconsciously dropped in awe – leaving a sweet red wine residue of that evening’s carafe.

Rather than the language barrier detracting from the overall theatrical experience, I was contentedly surprised to find that it enriched it. When it comes to the latest opera, it is not only Italian speakers who flock to the box office. In the past, I have craned my neck to see the subtitles for a maximum of ten minutes before declaring the angle too obtuse to warrant bothering. This sacrifice has never compromised the beauty of the overall opera piece, as meaning is transmitted through lung-bursting melody. Similarly, during Prometheus BoundI was forced to embrace the entire sensory experience. The voices, though mere speech, to the untuned ear morphed into musical compositions through which emotions were channeled; my attention on the curvature of their bodies could not waver; in this way, a non-verbal meaning could be found.

At times, my hairs stood on end. For all I knew, Dionysus the ancient Greek god of theatre could have been purring down my neck – he too was marveling the performance.

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