For over 15 centuries the Colosseum has enchanted visitors from all over the world, who looked at it as the symbol of Rome and of its glorious past. July 19-21, 2000, however, the monument returned to its former glory as an entertainment center after an extensive renovation, which began in 1992 and is still underway. A new wooden stage covering 4,300 sq. ft. of the 29,000 square foot arena has been built under the supervision of an international team of archaeologists and engineers over a portion of the corridors and underground tunnels where gladiators, stagehands and caged beasts once waited for the show to begin.
This time, the contemporary Roman audience saw a Greek tragedy, Oedipus, instead of the brutal and bloody gladiator battles, which were held in the arena until the early years of the fifth century. The production of Sophocles' drama, performed by the National Theater of Greece, will visit New York City this October.
Opened in 80 AD by Emperor Titus in a ceremony that included 100 days of games, beast battles and public executions, the Colosseum was the largest building in Rome, measuring 620 by 513 feet and standing 164 feet high against the Roman skyline. As many as 70,000 people could fill the amphitheatre (also known as Anfiteatro Flavio). In Medieval times it served as a source of marble and stone for the churches and palaces of Rome, and it fell in serious decay.
An accurate computer generated reconstruction of how the Colosseum looked like in the ancient times has recently been seen by audiences worldwide in the feature film "The Gladiator" by Ridley Scott and gave an additional popularity to the monument.
The theatre production, which marked the historic reopening of the Colosseum, was the new mounting of Oedipus Rex produced by the National Theatre of Greece and directed by Vassilis Papavasiliou. The show will visit New York City's City Center Oct. 4-8. Oedipus Rex will be presented at City Center by ICM Artists Ltd in association with Kritas Productions. Following the world premiere in Rome, the National Theatre of Greece's production was presented at the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus in Greece and in other ancient theatres throughout Greece, Korea, and in the Dubrovnik Festival in Croatia.
The tragedy of Oedipus Rex, written by Sophocles in the 5th century B.C., has fascinated both scholars and audiences for centuries. With Oedipus, the classic embodiment of the tragic hero at its center, the play examines the troubling issue of predestined fate. When the King of Thebes banishes his young son to die, based upon a prophecy that his child would grow up to murder him, the baby is raised by the King and Queen of Korinthus and named Oedipus. The grown Oedipus, questioning his birthright, receives an oracle that tells him he is doomed to kill his father and sleep with his mother, setting the character's inescapable plight in motion.
The theme was transmitted through Seneca to a long succession of playwrights, including Pierre Corneille, John Dryden, and Voltaire. It has had a special attraction in the 20th century, motivating Igor Stravinsky's secular oratorio Oedipus Rex, Andre Gide's Oedipe, and Jean Cocteau's La Machine infernale. Sigmund Freud chose the term "Oedipus complex" to designate a son's feeling of love toward his mother and jealousy and hate toward his father.
The National Theatre of Greece's production stars Grigoris Valtinos, one of Greece's most prominent actors, as Oedipus. The production also features Stephanos Kyriakidis as Creon, Costas Galanakis as Teiresias, Jenny Gaitanapoulou as Jocasta, and Manos Stalakis as Priest of Zeus. Scenery and costumes are by Yorgos Ziakas, lighting by Antonis Panayotopoulos and music by Dimitris Kamarotos.
Oedipus Rex is directed by Vassilis Papavasiliou whose major credits include the plays The New House by Goldoni, Faith, Love, Hope by Von Horvat, The Summer by Edward Bond, Steam House by Mayakovski and Ajax by Sophocles. He served as artistic director of the State Theatre at Serres and the National Theatre of Northern Greece.
Playbill On-line spoke to Mr. Papavasiliou the day after the successful opening of Oedipus Rex at the Colosseum in Rome, where the show received a standing ovation from an audience which included, among many others, the President of Italy Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.
Playbill On-Line: Can you tell us your feelings about the opening night at Rome's Colosseum?
Vassilis Papavasiliou: It was a marvelous night. It has been a very difficult fight against the Colosseum, for me, for my collaborators and above for all the actors, but eventually the monument did not win. I am very glad about the effort of all the people who worked for this production, they are the true winners.
PBOL: Was this production specifically designed with the Colosseum in mind?
VP: Not really: our production was adapted to the difficult conditions of the Colosseum, it was originally conceived for the ancient theatre of Epidaurus.
PBOL: How are you going to adapt the production to a modern stage such as the one you will find in New York?
VP: We have already prepared and designed an alternative indoor version when we perform in modern theatres.
PBOL: There is a great interest worldwide in classic theatre. New productions of ancient Greek tragedies often perform to sell out audiences in many countries. How do you explain that?
VP: I think that people in modern civilizations are overwhelmed by their jobs and by the high rhythms of their life and need to find a meaning for their hectic lives. I think that the Greek tragedies are one of the best places to find the true meaning of life and to understand the relations between oneself and the others. Oedipus Rex, in particular, deals with the problem of the loss of identity, and the search for it, and also with the pain of separation from one's family. We can see this happening everyday, with thousands of people leaving their countries and their families in search of a better world.
PBOL: You perform in modern Greek in front of foreign audiences. How do you cope with the problem of comprehension?
VP: That was a problem at the Colosseum because there were no subtitles provided, and the place was so huge. When we travel abroad we always have subtitles or simultaneous translation to help the audience follow what is happening on the stage.
PBOL: What are the main elements of your mounting of Oedipus Rex?.
VP: The main element of this production is the soul of the actors. I think that the theatre is the kingdom of the actor. If nothing happens in the soul of the actors, then theatre does not exist.
Playbill On-Line also asked a couple of Jenny Gaitanapoulou, who plays the role of Jocasta. Jenny is a member of the National Theatre of Cyprus and joined the Greek National Theatre for this production.
PBOL: How did you feel when you walked on such a famous and peculiar stage?
Jenny Gaitanapoulou: I can't say I enjoyed it very much; it was a very interesting experience, and interesting experiences normally serve as weapons for actors. I performed in many peculiar places during my career, but this huge monument where so much blood has been shed was almost scaring. There were so many cats around the arena, and at times I felt as if these cats were going to turn into lions.
PBOL: Can you tell us something about the character you play.
JG: The director expected me to give the many different sides of Jocasta as a female. This means that I had to be at the same time a queen, who could kill and change laws, a sick person such as Gertrude in Shakespeare's Hamlet or Mrs. Alving in Ibsen's Ghosts, and an attractive female who goes to bed with Oedipus. These are the three important aspects of my character, which I tried to project to the audience.
Following the City Center engagement, the National Theatre of Greece will travel for performances in Mexico City, Santiago and Vina del Mar (Chile), San Paolo (Brazil), Montevideo and Buenos Aires.
--By Stefano Curti