In Modern Greek
Directed by Aris Biniaris
July 4– September 26, 2021
Summer Tour – Greece
Reviewed by Nina Papathanasopoulou, Ava Galbraith, Charlotte Glessner-Fischer, Molly McLeod, Lauryn West
College Year in Athens
Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound is a play about the enigmatic relationship between the human and the divine, the nature of power, the limits of human suffering, and society’s response to human progress and technological advancement.1 The play dramatizes various manifestations of pride, arrogance, and violence, investigates the values of justice and freedom, and encourages solidarity and compassion, while making us witnesses to the extreme suffering of Zeus’ victims: primarily Prometheus himself, but also Io.
Poreia Theatre’s extraordinary production, directed by the innovative Greek director, Aris Biniaris, toured all over Greece throughout the summer and early fall of 2021. This review, jointly written by College Year in Athens Classics professor Nina Papathanasopoulou and four students, Ava Galbraith, Charlotte Glessner-Fischer, Molly McLeod, and Lauryn West, is based on the performance that we saw together with the other 29 members of our Ancient Greek Mythology and Religion class at the ancient theater of Herodes Atticus in Athens on September 20.
The performance was captivating both acoustically and visually, with the auditory and visual components of the play standing out for their uniqueness and meaningful effect. The music and sound of the performance was an integral part of Biniaris’ vision. A live cellist accompanied parts of the performance, especially the speeches of the most refined characters, Prometheus and Io. But the greater part of this production’s innovative soundscape was electronic. Biniaris worked with contemporary musician Fotis Siotas to create an electronic music composition drawing on hip hop and drill music, a form of trap music focusing on life’s daily ordeals. Biniaris also worked with the characters’ voices, placing emphasis on their inhalations, exhalations, hisses, and whispers. He thus decided to buck convention further by using face microphones, often considered out of place for performances of ancient drama in open-air theaters in Greece. The result was riveting. The soundscape created an eerie and unsettling atmosphere that lasted throughout the play and added another layer of meaning to the text.
The mostly colorless costumes, designed by Vasiliki Syrma, helped transport the audience to an austere and disconcerting world. The gods (Hephaestus, Oceanus, Hermes), their attendants, the personified Kratos/Power and Bia/Violence, and the bovine Io wore black or white, while the Oceanids were clothed in pale grayish blue dresses, subtly suggestive of ocean water. Prometheus wore brown, perhaps as a reminder of his devotion to the earth and the humans who occupy it. Responsible for completing tough labors, Hephaestus, Kratos, and Bia wore black with leather aprons. Hermes and Oceanus’ costumes were tailored and tightly fitting like suits, forming a contrast with the Oceanids’ flowing dresses, the animalistic costume of Io and the tattered clothing of Prometheus. The gods’ faces were also painted white, accentuating their features. These gods seemed wealthy, powerful, and in control. Yet as the play progressed, one came to wonder whether the smartness of their clothing was meant as a cover for an insecurity or fear that lay within.
Indeed, the gods’ insecurity—in contrast to Prometheus’ resolute defiance—was further explored through the theme of binding, made visually prominent by this production’s frequent use of chains and leashes. Prometheus himself stood chained on top of a rocky column for most of the play, at the center of the stage and well above the level of the other actors. Oceanus and Hermes both arrived bound to their guards. Sometimes these guards led the gods, like animals dragging a chariot. At other times they were led by the gods, taking the role of subjects controlled by those in authority. The physical binding of these characters invited consideration of their mental and emotional binding too. As we discuss in detail below, while Prometheus’ physical binding—which had him towering above the others—paradoxically came to emphasize his inner freedom, the gods’ binding reflected their inner confinement and suggested their dependence on others: on their subjects, on Zeus, and even on their own power. The binding thus worked as an exploration of the nature of confinement and freedom, physical and mental.
The performance began in slow motion, with the entrance of a limping Hephaestus (David Malteze), accompanied by two silent figures whose terrifying masks recalled Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (Fig. 2). Carrying a ladder, they started preparing the location for Prometheus’ binding, contributing effectively to the disturbing and ominous atmosphere of the opening. Kratos/Power (Aris Biniaris) and Bia/Violence (Konstantinos Georgalis) followed shortly thereafter, leading Prometheus (Yannis Stankoglou) onto the stage, tied, muzzled, and crawling on all fours, like a rabid dog bracing against his captors (Fig. 3). As Classics scholar Ian Ruffell has noted, the personified Kratos and Bia reify the values of Zeus’ new regime, manifest his ideas of authority and power, and assert his will.2 In this production, while Hephaestus was reluctantly preparing Prometheus’ bonds and contemplating the suffering he would have to face, Kratos and Bia worked and spoke together and over each other, in a distressing kind of harmony, physically goading Hephaestus to continue with his work, and constantly reminding him that Prometheus should recognize the power of authority. In carrying out their duties of binding Prometheus they repeatedly ordered Hephaestus to not pity him, but hate him (“μην τον λυπάσαι, να τον μισείς”).3 Their fixation with displaying their authority made Kratos and Bia appear exceedingly savage and merciless—human in form, but inhuman in heart. Hephaestus finds horror in what he is compelled to do, but Kratos and Bia make clear that this horror, for them, constitutes justice. It is justice because it distinguishes the ruler from the slave and demonstrates Zeus’ authority in a majestic and viciously satisfying fashion. With its emphasis on the horror of seeing cruelty committed in the name of justice, this production’s opening scene was viscerally disturbing.
The remainder of the play continued to explore the power of Zeus through Prometheus’ unending suffering. In addition to binding him at the outskirts of the world—exposed to piercing sun, raging winds, and unbearable cold, unable to move freely, rest or even sleep—this production also removed Prometheus from the eyesight level of anyone passing, placing him on the top of a dark, rocky column (Fig. 4). In this way, the performance at first seemed to underline how Prometheus’ suffering consisted simultaneously of physical pain and social deprivation. He is cut off from what he, as a benefactor to mankind—literally a philanthropist—enjoyed the most: the company of other living beings and the joy of teaching them how to use their reason and intellect.
Biniaris’ direction accentuated Prometheus’ suffering both visually and acoustically. Chained on top of the rocky column, Stankoglou tugged on the heavy links, a visual reminder to the audience of both Prometheus’ criminality and his enslavement to Zeus’s wrath. Hand-sewn rags draped his figure; brown hues suggested a griminess of character and a fall from grace. Howls rumbled forth. Wildness radiated from the actor’s ridged form and echoes of the beast surrounded viewers. Stankoglou’s physical movements—tense, harsh jerking motions, and a sort of desperate swaying—spoke to the degradation of Prometheus’s humanity, elicited sympathy and challenged viewers to question their conceptions of societal justice.
Stankoglou’s manipulation of breath added another layer to the characterization of Prometheus. The actor intensified his panting while interacting with other gods, and allowed it to dissipate into quiet rhythmic exhalations when other victims or characters sympathetic to Prometheus’ plight came to see him. As the play progressed, the relative crispness of the dialogue reflected Prometheus’ ascending control over his emotions and understanding of his punishment and sufferings—especially in contrast to Oceanus and Hermes, whose thoughts and emotions seemed caged by the control of Zeus.
Prometheus’ isolation and his need for social interaction was made more evident with the arrival of the chorus of the Oceanids. In contrast to the fiery glow around Prometheus, the entrance of the Oceanids was marked by a bright blue light from the stage at ground level, representing the ocean and playing off their flowing dresses to create a water-like effect. Upon entering, the Oceanids repeatedly pronounced that they could see Prometheus, casting themselves as eyewitnesses to his pitiful suffering, and offering compassion and solidarity for his hardships and isolation.4 Prometheus too showed signs of relief, as he now had an audience for his story. Scholars of Aeschylus have observed that the Oceanids’ sympathy for Prometheus’ position and their divergence from Oceanus’ views, increases throughout the play to such a degree that by the end they are independent enough to “desert their home, ignore the commands of Hermes, and reject the rule of Zeus.”5 In Poreia’s production, this shift in attitude was also reflected in their movement, which shifted from more cohesive dance to individual movements: one nymph stepped away from the rest to deliver a speech about Zeus’ power, while upon Hermes’ arrival they became divided as the beasts leading Hermes chased them around the stage. That chase, a back-and-forth reminiscent of tides ebbing and flowing, also suggested the Oceanids’ ambivalence and shifting position throughout the play. By the end, the timid maidens rejected the tyranny of Zeus and stayed beside Prometheus, ready to be engulfed by the storm and earthquake Zeus was about to send.
The Oceanids’ light airy robes and flowy movements, suggestive of wildness and freedom, contrasted not only with Prometheus bound to his rock, but also with their father, Oceanus, who arrived bound to his slaves (Fig. 5).6
Awash with blue light, the stage dramatically shifted its tone to welcome the entrance of a new divine figure to the story. Oceanus, played by Alekos Syssovitis, swept onstage, a straight-backed figure filled with confidence. White faced and dressed in a silver-white suit, cap, flowing sash, and shining silver shoes, Syssovitis was led by two white-clad figures wearing brown animalistic masks covering their entire heads (Fig. 6). While scholars agree that in Aeschylus’ original production Oceanus must have visited Prometheus atop a sort of bird,7 director Biniaris had Syssovitis glide on stage as the back point of a triangle formed with these two masked figures. Oceanus demonstrated his control by his easy manipulation of the leashes or reins attached to their thin black chest harnesses, as though he were entering on a divine chariot. In a possible nod to the bird of the original, Biniaris incorporated gliding motions into their entrance. The trio’s movements appeared strikingly well balanced as Oceanus sauntered back and forth along the stage, prowled and circled Prometheus, while his leashed servants cleared a space in front, maintaining a wide berth around the deity. With each step the trio took, the Oceanids made a responding movement, conveying their own desire to keep a distance between themselves and Oceanus.
Wearing an eye-catching outfit in an otherwise neutral-toned environment, Oceanus delivered his spiel like a carnival barker engaging his audience. His posturing and open body language resembled that of an energized teacher, insisting his audience listen and heed his warnings. The loud and slightly condescending tone Syssovitis used reflected Oceanus’ authoritative position in the social hierarchy. He appeared pompous with his long preaching speeches, advising Prometheus to succumb to Zeus’ orders: “Resist your rage, adapt to the new rule and save yourself. Allow your wisdom to come to the rescue. […] Retreat in the face of sorrow, pretend I’m your teacher. I must take my leave now. I’ll do my best to resolve your problem. But please hold your peace, and hold your tongue—words cost dearly.”8 (“Αντιστάσου στην οργή σου, προσαρμόσου στη συνθήκη, και κοίταξε πώς θα σωθείς. Δώσε την ευκαιρία στη σοφία σου να σώσει έναν σοφό.[...] Υποχώρησε μπροστά στη δυστυχία. Πες πως είμαι ο δάσκαλός σου. Φεύγω τώρα· θα προσπαθήσω ‐όσο μπορώ‐ να λύσω το πρόβλημά σου. Εσύ κοίτα να ησυχάσεις. Μέτρα τα λόγια σου ‐ κοστίζουν ακριβά.”) His rollercoaster of pitying, patronizing, and praying to Prometheus may have fallen on deaf ears, but Syssovitis’ portrayal of these rippling attitudes was very apt for an Ocean deity. On the one hand, his pride suggested the ocean’s strength and weight. Yet Syssovitis also swayed, as though in response to the wind, to Zeus’s power, and even in rhythm with the two animal-masked figures. Though he physically held their reigns, he also followed their movements, so as to remain within the negative space of the gap between them. Thus Oceanus appeared both controlling and controlled, perhaps suggesting by extension his dependence on authority, on the rule of Zeus. In this way, Oceanus, physically free, yet bound by his fear of Zeus, presented an excellent foil for Prometheus, who was physically chained by Zeus yet retained his mental freedom.
With his chest cocked up and his white face paint gleaming under somber, despairing hues, Hermes (Ioannis Papazisis) strutted across the rounded rim of the stage, pulled by two leashed servants resembling the attendants of Hephaestus and Oceanus. Hermes was devoted to supporting Zeus’ power over weaker beings, and stood in opposition to Prometheus’ role of furthering human progress. Hermes made his proclamations with open arms and hissing breath, but his confinement to his servants suggested that his power over Prometheus was tied to Zeus’ power. Prometheus himself also saw Hermes as bound to Zeus, frequently repeating that he “would never exchange his rock with Hermes’ slavery; better to be the master of the stony rock than a slave to Zeus” (“Δεν θ’ άλλαζα ποτέ με την σκλαβιά σου τούτο το βράχο. Καλύτερα αφέντης του πέτρινου βράχου μου παρά δούλος του Δία”). His exaggerated strides and pronunciation seemed insincere, suggesting that Hermes was compensating for a lack of true power (Fig. 7). Perhaps Biniaris wanted his version of Hermes to show that Prometheus’ view of humans is morally superior to Hermes’, and by association Zeus’, and that Hermes’ position as a divinity is fragile. The aggressive character of the movements suggested that Hermes may even be putting on a show for Zeus, to clearly illustrate where his loyalties lie.
In Aeschylus’ play, Prometheus’ suffering is thrown into a new light with the arrival of Io: here is another victim like Prometheus, enduring torment at Zeus’ instigation. This encounter between Io and Prometheus was among the most memorable scenes in Poreia’s production, both emotionally and visually. Clothed all in white, with a tight bodice and gigantic curving horns, Io, played by Iro Bezou, walked with stilts on all fours (Fig. 8). The stilts were fitted to seem like extensions of Io’s body, with jagged lines that made her legs resemble bones. Costume designer Vasiliki Syrma produced an arresting vision of a creature half human and half beast, a sensual woman made bovine, whose haggard and stilted manner made evident the discomfort she must have been experiencing within this rigid form. Significantly, Io’s skeletal figure called to mind a sacrificial animal, with jutting bones ready to be separated and burnt in honor of the gods. A grim logic undergirds this presentation: Io, trapped in this form because she fell victim to Zeus, offers an unsettling reminder of the sacrifices humans must make to satisfy the gods’ whims. In the auditory sphere, Io’s airy moans drew attention to an undercurrent of carnal desires woven throughout the scene. While Io’s presence exuded mostly pain, the sounds she emitted added a sexual layer to her suffering, which in the context of the play seemed effectively to link Zeus’ political tyranny to his sexual tyranny.
Io’s suffering also provides a stark contrast to the suffering of Prometheus. Pursued by a gadfly and having to roam all over the world, her punishment is to be constantly mobile, never to stop, never to settle in one place (Fig. 9). Prometheus, by contrast, is immobile, unable to go anywhere. Both underscore Zeus’ extreme oppression: he dehumanizes his subjects, isolating them and depriving them of a sense of belonging.9
Though Io’s disturbing appearance makes Zeus seem more powerful and his victims more pitiful, it also gives Prometheus the opportunity to display his knowledge and his capacity for rational thinking. Moreover, the clarity of Prometheus’ mental faculties verges on the prophetic, and he is able to assure Io and us, the audience, that redemption will eventually come, albeit only after thirteen generations. Though Io and the chorus feel disappointment and wonder how one can endure for such a long time, Io finds some comfort in knowing her future. In this production, Io’s response seems to bring a change in Prometheus’ understanding: he recognizes more fully than before the value of knowledge, a possession denied to Zeus, who does not know when and by whom he will one day be overcome. As a consequence, when Zeus resolves to punish Prometheus further by having him fall down into Tartarus, the bottom of the earth, and have an eagle to feed continually on his liver, Prometheus manages to turn this “fall” into a weapon used to his advantage.10
Poreia’s production concluded with a slightly adapted version of the Aeschylean original, building on and modifying elements present in Aeschylus to create a new and powerful effect. In Aeschylus’ original, when Hermes describes the increased punishment that is coming—his fall into Tartarus and the arrival of the eagle that will daily eat his liver—Prometheus remains unyielding. Condemning this defiance as insane, Hermes urges the chorus to save themselves and abandon Prometheus to his fate. The chorus refuses and sticks by Prometheus’ side. The play ends as Prometheus, awaiting his harsher punishment, calls upon mother earth and holy sky to witness his unjust suffering and help him weather the storm.
As in the ancient text, Poreia’s production also ended with Prometheus and the chorus waiting to be drawn down into Tartarus to begin their period of greatest suffering.11 In the production’s final moments, Prometheus uttered his last words, while the Oceanids stood beneath him, gradually increasing the volume of their sounds, vibrating their bodies and creating melodious tones, thus marking their resolution to stay with Prometheus as smoke rose from below. In the end, the lights faded to darkness, with Prometheus still standing tall at the top of his rocky column. In these last words Poreia’s production departed from the original text. After Hermes’ departure, Poreia’s production added a speech for the chorus, and Prometheus’ final words were altered. With no music in the background, one chorus member spoke calmly, as if at peace, imagining that the world about to come would be a place where wounds would have no significance and tyrants no authority. Drawing on the poetic Modern Greek translation of Yorgos Blanas, Prometheus called not on mother earth, as in Aeschylus, but on mother thought (σκέψη/skepsē), highlighting an important theme of Prometheus’ mythology: a celebration of the human ability to think, learn, and understand. As a result, the vision of a hopeful, distant future seemed to hover somewhere beyond the harsh final moments of the performance. The play ended with Prometheus uttering a plaintive expression of profound isolation, crying how humans, alone, abandoned by the gods, “would walk in the desert of time until they can stand tall in the midst of infinity” (“κι ο άνθρωπος θα περπατήσει στην έρημο του χρόνου μέχρι που θα βρεθεί όρθιος στη μέση της απεραντοσύνης”). The performance concluded with these words being repeated multiple times by Prometheus, who was standing tall on his column in the midst of darkness.
Paradoxically, though we were left with these words to ponder the extremities of a tyrant’s cruelty, the production as a whole instilled a certain optimism, by emphasizing the importance of hope and adherence to the value of internal freedom as a means of sustaining hardships that may otherwise seem unendurable. More than once in the play, Prometheus declares that he has taught humans to endure the fear of death through unwavering hope (“το φόβο του θανάτου τούς έμαθα ν' αντέχουν με την ακλόνητη ελπίδα”). Indeed, in his analysis of Prometheus Bound, Ruffell points out that it is fire—Prometheus’ famous gift to mankind, necessary for warmth, cooking, and technology—and hope that “provide humanity with an open-ended opportunity for advancement.”12 It is precisely the ability of humans to advance that Zeus fears as an eventual threat to his rule. In this way, Poreia’s production successfully illustrates that even in the face of pain and injustice, the human ability to hope is a weapon stronger than might (kratos) and violence (bia).
The figure of Prometheus has been used at times as a symbol for suffering and pain (Fig. 10), and at others as one of hope and progress (Fig. 11). This production was remarkable for bringing out these two opposing qualities at once. Biniaris’ brilliant direction succeeded in leaving the audience at once distressed and inspired, with images of the cruel, unjust, and brutal tyrant lingering beside the powerful message that knowledge, hope, and freedom are invaluable tools for our advancement and survival.
Here is a video trailer for the show, produced by Pavlos Kerasidis.
Nina Papathanasopoulou would like to thank her 33 students in two sections of Ancient Greek Mythology and Religion at College Year in Athens (CYA) in Fall 2021 for their enthusiasm and ideas while reading Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound and seeing the play at the theater of Herodes Atticus in Athens. Her discussions with them about Poreia Theatre’s production of Prometheus Bound were invaluable in shaping this review. She also thanks Poreia Theatre for sharing material and photographs of the performance and director Aris Biniaris for his willingness to meet and discuss his vision with her and her students after the play.
1Scholars debate whether the play is truly by Aeschylus. This review assumes the authenticity of the attribution.
2See Ian Ruffell, Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, Bloomsbury, 2012 (pp. 29–33) and Mark Griffith, Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, Cambridge, 1983 (pp. 80–81).
3The script of the performance was based on Modern Greek poet’s Yorgos Blanas’ translation of Prometheus Bound and was adapted by director Aris Biniaris and dramaturg Elena Triantafyllopoulou for Poreia’s production. All Greek quotes are part of the script that was delivered during the performance.
4The text makes clear that in the original ancient production while entering, the Oceanids can see Prometheus, but Prometheus cannot see them. Even though in most Greek plays the actors performed from a stage at the back of the orchestra, in PB it has been suggested that Prometheus was tied to a rock in the center of the orchestra, with all the action of the play taking place there (John Davidson, “Prometheus Vinctus on the Athenian Stage,” in Greece and Rome 41.1, 1994, pp. 33–40). If so, the Oceanids could enter behind Prometheus and thus remain unseen during their initial entry. Interestingly enough, Poreia’s production not only placed Prometheus in the center of the stage, but also on top of a high column and so the Oceanids could indeed arrive without being seen
5William C. Scott, “The Development of the Chorus in Prometheus Bound,” in TAPA 117, 1987, pp. 85–96. Scott emphasizes the “conversion” in character among the Oceanids. He argues that while their characterization is stable throughout the work, their attitude changes to such a degree that by the end of the play they “desert their home, ignore the commands of Hermes, and reject the rule of Zeus” (p.89). An instrumental moment for their change of attitude is the episode with Io. In her “physical disfigurement and shocking derangement” the Oceanids “are able to see the clear results of the rule of Zeus” (p.92).
6Scott (1987, p. 86) suggests that the Oceanids are commonly portrayed in light airy robes in order to emphasize the contrast between them and their father Oceanus. He further connects their airy nature to their distance from humanity and their lack of experience “in the world outside their protected cave.” This directly contrasts with Prometheus’ attachment to humans and his literal ties to the earth.
7See, for example, David Konstan, “The Ocean Episode in the Prometheus Bound,” History of Religions, vol. 17, no. 1, University of Chicago Press, 1977, p. 63.
8All quotations from the play in English are taken from the supertitles of the performance, translated by Despoina Pavlaki. We are grateful to Poreia Theatre for permission to cite these in the review.
9Griffith 1983 (pp. 188–90) discusses how the Io scene underlines Zeus’ harshness and makes us appreciate Prometheus’ philanthropy.
10In a conversation that Nina Papathanasopoulou had with the director, Aris Biniaris, Biniaris stated that this was indeed one intention of the performance.
11Cf. D. J. Allen, The World of Prometheus: The Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens, Princeton, 2000. Allen agrees that being drawn down to the Underworld and Tartarus will be a more severe punishment because it will deprive him completely of social interaction: he will not be able to see anyone and thus will not be able to convince anyone that his punishment is wrong (pp. 25–35).
12Ruffell 2012, p. 61-62.