translated and directed by Hans Croiset
Theater aan het Spui
Den Haag, The Netherlands
Reviewed by Herman Altena,
Oude Turfmarkt 129,
1012 GC Amsterdam
For the elderly generation in the Netherlands, the most impressive Dutch productions of Greek tragedy will no doubt have been Euripides' Iphigenia in Tauris, directed by Johan de Meester in 1950 as part of the first Holland Festival, and Aeschylus' Persians directed by Erik Vos in 1963, also as part of the Holland Festival. Both directors aimed at reproducing the ancient Greek theatre conditions as faithfully as possible. De Meester was the first person in Dutch theatrical history to attempt this. In both productions, masked actors and a large chorus played in an orchestra formed by the ring of the Amsterdam circus theatre Carre. Both directors thus created a kind of temporary museum of Greek performance and their productions exuded an atmosphere of thorough research.
Documents of Vos' production --photographs, reviews, a 30-minute video about the production process, which also contains two minutes of the actual performance, and a full cast recording give the impression of great solemnity. The text was still played in the tradition of declamation. The rich rythmical variety of the original was preserved and all choral parts were set to music. The actors wore large masks and long stately costumes. The performance was characterised by large movements. The acting style was extremely solemn, the overall tempo generally slow. Even today, now that acting style has so profoundly changed, one can still feel the overwhelming power of this production, with the anapests booming through the theatre.
Vos' Persians was so impressive that it took more than thirty years before the play was staged again by a professional company. This year welcomes two productions. One was realized in May by the Nationale Toneel and the other will be played in November-December by Theatergroep Hollandia. This review is devoted to the Nationale Toneel production.
The company is one of the largest subsidized theatre companies in the Netherlands. For Hans Croiset, resigning artistic director, Persians was his farewell production. He choose this play because of its thematic relevance. Moreover, he wanted to create a production in which dramatic, musical and visual aspects would be of equal importance. Therefore he cooperated with three specialists: Reinier Tweebeeke on lighting design, Toer van Schayk (the renowned choreographer of the National Ballet) for the setting and costume, and the young composer Micha Hamel for the music. The thematic relevance of the play hardly needs further comment. The horrors of war pass our television screens almost every day: the Gulf, Somalia, Bosnia, Ruanda. Western Europe is celebrating the 50th anniversary of liberation from the Second World War while eyewitnesses report stories of cruel deaths, in tone strikingly similar to the messenger reports in Persians. Xerxes' hubris is parallelled and even excelled by modern agressors. Like Xerxes, they remain in power regardless of their deeds.
Croiset did not want to make the play topical. For him clear references to our times, like a chorus wearing grey costumes, is flat. The eternal value of the themes, depicted in the play in its own historical context should be sufficient. Croiset also wanted to pursue what he calls 'theatrical archaeology' (1).
By this he does not mean the reproduction of ancient performing conditions and conventions, such as De Meester and Vos had aimed at. According to Croiset such projects are doomed to fail, because you are always wrong. One could add that, even if you could reproduce the original theatrical space and acting style, you would still not have recreated the original performing conditions, because youwill never be able to reconstruct the original audience. That De Meesters' and Vos' reconstructions did not fail is caused by the fact that their productions reconfirmed and at the same time deepened a vague conventional knowledge of the spectators of that time about the outer appearance of an original Greek performance. The world that was depicted seemed new, unfamiliar and distant. New it was certainly, but in fact is was also familiar and near, because it appealed perfectly to conventional knowledge. This seemingly paradoxical simultaneous representation of the new and the familiar, was probably the key condition for powerful theatrical experience of the audience.
Croiset did not so much try to reproduce a theatrical convention as aim at reconstructing the world depicted in the play, and at showing the different disciplines involved in achieving this. The performance seemed to be reporting a research process and its clearly to practical archaeology. The house of the Theater aan het Spui had been completely remodelled. The audience first entered onto a raised rectangular white floor which contained on all sides three or four large steps functioning as seats, and was seated on the edges of a large rectangular gap in the middle of the floor. This was about 2,5 metres deep and served as acting area. Here the walls were also white. The floor of the acting area was covered with sand. Three masts stood upright at a distance from each other, connected at the top by heavy chains. Four iron bars stuck out of the sand. Several blocks scattered over the floor served as seats. Twelve people lay stock still face-down in the sand. You hardly noticed them because their costumes were of the same colour as the sand that covered the floor. The whole tableau gave the impression of an archaeological site which had just been excavated.
The entire text of the play was projected on the walls surrounding the audience. Croiset wanted pay honour to the long textual tradition of the play, which after all is the oldest Greek tragedy that has come down to us --this, to him, is another aspect of 'theatrical archeology'. And he was fascinated by the idea that the spectators would listen to a text which was part of their direct physical environment. As a result, the vertical axis of the set had a clear temporal significance: at the top the timeless text; next, surrounded by it, the spectators, interpreters of the text and of the performance; then, deep below, the historical world depicted in the text, as it was uncovered by the theatrical archeologist.
At the same time, the excavated objects had more or less obvious meaning on the dramatic level, the masts standing for the ships (critics also took them as standing for the royal palace) and the sand for Persia. The excavated gap was closed on all sides. On the dramatic level this pointed to the recarious position of the people imprisoned in it: Persians, closed off from the world they long to know about, haunted with fear and unable to act.
The twelve excavated people came to life. Their costumes and masks showed clear signs of 'theatrical archaeology' as well. The players wore long sand-coloured robes with sleeves, made of square scales and ornated with chains. These, together with the typical high- columned oriental headdress, were inspired by Assyrian relief sculptures. The faces of the actors and actresses were covered with a thin layer of sand-coloured clay. During the performance these masks became cracked because of the movement of the actors' faces when they spoke. Thus the excavated figures, initially unscratched, were damaged as soon as the performance started, like a fresco (was it in Fellini's Roma?) which is exposed to air and light for the first time. At the dramatic level, the cracking masks signified the mental breakdown of the Persian elders before and after the terrible news of the defeated Persian fleet had reached them.
Besides the costumes and masks, the performance showed many other fine visual moments, such as the ghost-raising scene, culminating in the appearance of the old king. When the song of summoning was finished, the upright masts crashed heavily to the ground (to symbolize the ruin of the fleet, or the dowfall of the Persian might, or perhaps just as a means to distract the spectators' attention from the role-change taking place?) and at once the old king was there, standing in the middle of a circle of white sand that fell down from the ceiling, while on the ground a circle of laurel branches signified his successes during his lifetime and the prosperity he had brought to his people. Spotlights, located at a
low position behind the horizontally revolving walls of the acting area, produced a range of ever- hanging colours for warmth, water, fear etc.
There was also, however, a lot of superfluous visual mess, like the spear which fell down from the ceiling into one of the blocks during the parodos, or the single feather fluttering down while the queen reported that she had seen a hawk tear the head off an eagle at the altar of Phoibos, following her dream.
It was precisely at the vital point of bringing this distant world, which had the character of an nstallation in a museum, to life that the production went wrong. As soon as the first words of the parodos esounded the gap between actors and audience seemed to be covered by glass: you could see and hear the dramatic figures, but not feel them. Not for one moment did these exotic figures seem to experience sincere emotions, even when they displayed them. From the very beginning of the performance they shouted the text, as if strong emotions and high volume were identical.
The choreography often seemed entirely pointless. Chorus members at times wandered among each other in an agitated way, but like the shouts, their movements did not convey any of the emotions they were meant to express. The musicality of the text, which is extremely important in Greek tragedy for displaying emotions, was completely suppressed. Music was present in the form of low and heavy mechanical sounds and distorted vocal cries, but the actors' musical attributions were confined to cries
like 'tototodom, tsjk, tsjk, prrr, pta, prrr, pta, frr, frr, sss'. In short, there was no organic coherence between these Persians and the emotions they displayed.
The distancing effect was intensified by the fact that the chorus members shouted their texts exclusively to each other during the first 250 lines, as if they really had to inform one another about the
composition of the army, and as if there were no spectators. They hardly made any eye-contact with the audience. This was one of the great disadvantages of playing down in a deep trench: the visual angle between audience and actors was too steep. The chorus would have had to look up constantly to make eye-contact with the spectators, and that would have had the same distancing effect. Thus the arrangement of the theatrical space turned out to be a substantial hindrance to audience involvement.
Croiset also wanted to investigate another aspect of theatrical archeology, namely the origin of the western theatre: the moment that the actor releases himself from the chorus. In this mise en scene all dramatic figures sprang from and flowed back into the chorus in the following manner: one chorus member was surrounded by the others, and a small change in physical appearance made him or her the queen, the messenger, Dareios or Xerxes. After the role was finished, the individual became one with the chorus again. This, by the way, was the procedure Peter Stein used in his famous Oresteia to make the messenger in the Agamemnon disappear. Croiset applied it to every entrance and exit.
Thus the performers never left the acting area, the dramatic figures never left the world in which they were imprisoned, the excavated figures never left the gap in which they were found.Most of the role changes were clear, because all dramatic figures except the queen had only one entrance and exit. But he queen had two. This meant that she had to be off for some time, though the actress necessarily had to remain physically present. Croiset solved this problem as follows: one of the chorus members became queen by putting on a chariot-like headgear. Then the four bars were pulled out from the sand by other chorus members, and a frame appeared which was held above the queen's head as a sunshade. Thus her first appearance was made. When the messenger arrived, she sat down on one of the blocks, and hardly reacted to what he reported. This block thereby became marked as royal throne. During his reports she sometimes rose. At her first exit, she took off her chariot-hat, sat down on the block, and kept still. By taking off her hat she symbolically lay down her role and at the same time the block ceased to be her throne. The sign might have been clear to those spectators who knew the play and who were familiar with the use of these kinds of theatrical conventions, but the less experienced spectators must have been confused when the queen who had so explicitly referred to her exit apparently stayed on. The confusion was increased when the queen did not wear the chariot- hat for her second entrance. This was of course a fine literal representation of her words 'without chariot' (607 aneu t' ocheematoon), but the only sign left that the actress had again taken on her role as queen was her voice and the content of her words. Although these kinds of devices did not obscure the overall meaning of the play, they certainly hindered the immediate understanding of the performance and temporarily distracted the audience's attention from the content of the dialogues.
The final scene between Xerxes and the chorus was utterly disappointing. When he arrived, i.e. became Xerxes, he bent backwards with his hands touching the ground, while the chorus stood around him and called him to account. But gradually the roles changed, and the last picture was Xerxes, standing on a block with a spear in his hand raised in triumph, while the chorus was lying on the ground.There was no shared suffering here, only a simple illustration of the queen's prediction that Xerxes would remain in power if he should return alive (214). Though Croiset openly rejected modernising, his interpretation of the final scene was clearly topical: present leaders do not pay for their mistakes. This one-sided message, which is implicit, rather than blatant, in the text of Aeschylus, made the final scene extremely flat.
Croiset's 'theatrical archaeology' was thought-provoking in itself and produced many fine images. He created an interesting temporary museum of archaeology, Persian history and theatrical history. Indeed, he came near to undermining his own proposition that in reconstructing one is always wrong. But he had forgotten that he was producing a theatre play, that figures, texts and emotions should become one, and that the gap between the distant world he created deep down and the audience had to be bridged.
* Citations quoted from a preview by Maartje Soomers in Het Parool 23/04/1994
Herman Altena is attached to the Department of Greek and Latin Languages at the University of Amsterdam, and to the Department of Theatre Arts at the University of Utrecht.