Review of Alexis, a Greek tragedy

9 Jan

Alexis, A Greek Tragedy, a new production by the Italian group MOTUS presented in Under The Radar Festival,is in many ways a theatrical essay on the character of Antigone and its projection into contemporary questions of social dissent. Its premise is simple: who is Antigone today? As we are told in the play the group Motus conducted workshops exploring that question when they heard of the shooting of 15 year old Alexis Grigoropoulos by the police and the subsequent widespread rioting in the centre of Athens in 2008. The group set on a trip to Greece in search of Antigone and collecting information on the events. This quest fed into their workshop process and the result was the creation of Alexis: a documentary theater piece including footage of the riots and the neighborhood of Exarchia (where the shooting happened) interviews with residents and intellectuals of the area, personal thoughts of the group’s journey, rehearsals of scenes from the tragedy interspersed with comments in the artistic process itself, explorations on how facts from the actual events can influence the performance of Antigone. According to its creators, Alexis is a call to action. Oddly, the performance (created in 2010) feels already outdated and surpassed by the reality outside the theater hall: the massive worldwide protest movement makes Alexis seem like a thing of the past (slightly reminiscent of those 1970s experiments at getting the bourgeois audiences out of their comfy seats, only the bourgeoisie has now become the 99%) where action is talked about as a concept while theatrical action itself is absent.

Tragic action-social action

Antigone is focused around the burial of Polynices’ corpse. The statesman Creon has prohibited the burial on the grounds that Polynices is an enemy of the state and Antigone defies his decree and buries her brother on the grounds of familial and religious duty. The dead body and the act of burial trigger a conflict between different sets of responsibilities (to the family and to the state) that a citizen carries in a democracy. In the course of the play the two poles of the conflict (Antigone, Creon) become increasingly fixated in their viewpoints bringing about equally personal and civic catastrophe. In between those two extremes there is a physically present chorus of elderly who maintains allegiance to Creon while trying to inspire some moderation in him, as well as an invisible implied chorus, the body of citizens, who, we are told, support Antigone in her action but are too afraid to speak up.

One would expect that a contemporary attempt to grapple with the figure of Antigone – given especially her popularity in explorations of civic disobedience- would thoroughly dig into the dynamics of the conflict between her and Creon, the significance of the tragic elements (i.e. tragic action, chorus) and the play’s structure (how the characters shift in the course of the play) beyond the easy and overused binary symbolism Antigone=resistance/ Creon=tyranny. It becomes therefore shockingly surprising to see how little thought and exploration of the actual tragedy has gone into Alexis: beyond the premise “who is Antigone today” and few text excerpts, there’s really not any committed engagement with the tragedy itself,its ideas, questions, characters or dramatic structure. As a result, the investigation of who Antigone might be today becomes very problematic insofar as the play limits its interpretation of the tragic character of Antigone to a generic and generalized symbol of resistance stripped of any context. Questions of allegiance and responsibility to civic and private obligations, as well as the character traits that make the tragic heroes hold on to their beliefs beyond self-doubt, give way in Alexis to a romanticized/idealized depiction of dissent, seen as a virtue in and of itself, and an a priori demonization of the state as a mechanism of oppression. What in the tragedy is structural (the state becomes increasingly repressive) in Alexis is essentialized (the state is by definition repressive). In the Greek context where Motus’ production is set, both notions of repression and dissent are a lot more complicated as the former is usually accompanied by extreme lawlessness while the latter, when it is not pure state-sponsored violence, is often lacking in ideological foundation.

With the same ease that the play appropriates Antigone as an unproblematic symbol of resistance, it uses the dead body of Alexis Grigoropoulos as a “stand-in” for the dead body of Polynices. A parallel is drawn between Creon’s proclamation that the warrior’s body is to be left unburied “a feast to the wild birds” and the Greek police’s reaction of shooting and then abandoning the boy’s body in Exarchia square. Here the performance misses a very crucial point: Polynices’ dead body is heavy with meaning: he is a disenfranchised heir to the throne, who came back to claim his rights and now he is proclaimed an enemy of the city; he is a brother, a citizen and a leader and the sum of these conflictual roles and responsibilities render his burial a crucial political issue (in Greek tragedy the personal and the political are always conflated). By contrast, what was tragic about the shooting of Alexis Grigoropoulos was the complete lack of meaning. The shooting was pure accident – the term accident here used in fully existential terms to denote a life being lost at the flip of a coin: the boy, a middle class teenager from the suburbs of Athens who was in that evening hanging out with his friends in Exarchia square, provoked the police, an exchange of insults ensued, the police car followed the kids who threw some empty cans at them, the policeman came out, fired and shot the kid dead. It is precisely the complete accidentality of the event (so reminiscent of Camus’ Meursault shooting at the Arab in The Stranger), the ultimate absence of any serious reason, motivation, meaning, politics or ideology behind this clash between citizen and authority, that caused an unprecedented rioting in the city: it was as if the shooting signaled the eruption of bottled feelings of lawlessness, lack of governance, meaninglessness experienced among Greeks for years, generalized feelings that actions don’t matter and don’t make a difference because no one is ever held accountable even if a life gets lost so absurdly in the middle of the street. The riots that erupted were riots of despair, anger and not protests of change, destructive and hopeless. This in fact was more of an anti-tragedy, closer to the world of Camus’ where meaning is lost, than to the world of tragedy’s multiple negotiations of meanings and significations that are equally valid for their defenders and are worth dying for.

This is why Motus’ exploration of who Antigone is does not go too far (despite rather shallow attempts such as “Antigone is the protesters” or “Antigone is the Exarchia square that still resists”): in forcing their own rather narrow meaning and oversimplified binaries (protesters vs.state) onto reality the performance misses the far more rich and productive complexity of the actual social conflict. A good look into the reality (not only of Greece but anywhere in the world where indignation boils) will reveal the diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints, interests and motivations of protesting, the messy, unclassifiable and conflictual collective as all collectives are in such moments of profound social change. Such a look might have engaged the group into a deeper exploration into finding what are the intricate relations between leader and led that tragedy may be able to illuminate in the dialectic relationship between heroes and hero and chorus. Not doing so and imposing premeditated meanings on such a crucial historical moment instead, is, as one reviewer rightly notes,an indication of irresponsibility. While Alexis raises interesting and provocative questions, it seems that the performance as a whole misses the opportunity, artistic and intellectual, to go deeper into the intersections between tragedy and life.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: