"Greece runs the risk of bringing an end to the European civilisation that they invented, which would be a tragic irony - something else they invented." Jon Stewart
I write this on the day the Greeks are voting in a referendum on whether to accept the EU, ECB and IMF's grotesque offer to their government, which would continue the austerity economics that has already brought the country to its knees. Who knows what is rhetoric and what is clear-eyed logic, but certainly one possible outcome is Greece leaving the Euro and possibly the EU itself; the co-called Grexit.
But in British theatre, we have the opposite. We have a Grentrance.
2015 looks likely to be the year of the Greeks. The Almeida has just opened Robert Icke's re-telling of Aeschylus's Oresteia. It's following that up with The Bacchae and Medea, a reworked Lysistrata and a one-off performance of the whole of Homer's Iliad. The Iliad is also going to be the given epic theatrical shape by Mike Pearson for the National Theatre of Wales. There's a re-working of Medea at The Gate, who gave us the faux-classical Idomoneus last year. We've had the classical tragedy of A View from the Bridge in the West End already this year. There are Oresteias also at Shakespeare's Globe and Home Manchester and rumours of another coming from National Theatre of Scotland. The Unicorn also has a 'Greek season' with retellings of the Minotaur and Odysseus myths.
Why the Greeks? Why now? Whenever we think about theatre we always reinvent the theatre. It's not as if there are permanent and unambiguous features of Greek plays that we always return to. Every visit to Ancient Greece, we see it with fresh eyes, find new things, pull out new features and find new parts of those plays and that world that resonate for us. So what is today's classical Athens?
Ironically, I think the reason the Greeks seem to be speaking to us so clearly now is austerity. I don't mean by that the economic meaning. I mean austerity in the sense of unadorned severity. There is something austere that we can find in those plays. Stripped of the fuss of naturalism, the flinty poetry of the work presents a series of archetypal conflicts: individuals against the mass, the dissenter against the state, mothers and against children, husband against wife, brother against sister, men against women, women against men, and everywhere human beings against the Gods and against destiny and against their own fundamental weaknesses.
Somehow these plays - and these productions - do this without pretending to some kind of ahistorical human nature; they remain political. These are conflicts that take place in clustered political worlds, in cities facing political crises in public health, or the conduct of unpopular foreign wars, or the machinations of rival families and factions, in which reputation is as subject to public opinion, to spin doctoring, to brand control as it is now. But they seem to present these conflicts stripped back to a state of bare life. There is a forbidding darkness as these figures move forward in pursuit of their ideals. Resentments are kept preserved over years, justice is meted out with implacable brutality; everywhere we see civilisation as the other side of barbarism and the characters struggle their way to negotiate between them.
So when I say I don't mean austerity in the economic sense, that's not quite true. Austerity economics is a world of intense, friendless cruelty. If Euripides had written a play about the current treatment of Greece, he'd have drawn our attention to the arbitrary, implacable and brutal decisions of the IMF just as he presents the insanity of the Gods in Iphigenia in Aulis. If Sophocles were to write about today's referendum, he'd tell a story about people standing up against a tyrant trying to starve dissenters into submission and it is likely that play would end up looking very like Antigone.
The advocates of austerity economics like to present it as simple common sense rather than the right-wing ideology policy that it is. It's an extreme form of Thatcherism. That's right, an extreme form. It is based on a neoliberal commitment to minimising the state as far as possible to a series of safeguards against private property (some laws, a police force) that sees anything more as an unacceptably socialistic attempt to buck the market that will always fail. These people genuinely believe that if you removed all unemployment benefit, people would find jobs; that if you make people pay directly for their own healthcare, they will try much harder not to get sick; that if you removed all arts subsidy, the private sector will simply - and much more efficiently - step in to provide the same or better.
I think they honestly think austerity makes economic sense, despite the fact that there is zero evidence of it. Greece has been running an austerity policy for five years and it's completely run into the ground. It didn't work in Britain; we had the slowest exit from a recession in our history and only started to recover when Osborne backed down from his most hardline approach. America had a much faster exit, because they didn't go down the austerity route. The issue is I think they also think austerity makes moral sense. They find it morally disgusting for someone to spend years on benefits - not, as you and I probably do, because people should be able to get good, rewarding jobs, but because they think welfare makes people lazy and austerity improves everyone's moral character. And, trying to imagine what it would be like to be an austeriarch, I think that if they ever have any doubts about the economic sense, they can comfort themselves that it's still morally good.
The problem is that we're so far from the foundation of the Welfare State in the 1940s that we've lost that collective memory of what life was like in the 1930s without it. Someone who was 21 when the Beveridge Report was published, in 1942, would be 94 today. There aren't many of them around to remind us that when you deny people a basic standard of health, income, nourishment, cleanliness, culture and work the whole society suffers. Austerity is immoral and humiliating and makes societies much worse. This convenient historical amnesia allows the delusional cheerleaders for free markets in everything to believe that reducing people to bare life will only be good for us. The Greeks remind us what a cold universe it is if our fate is in the hands of arbitrary and capricious judgments from our jealous and temperamental divinities, whether they sit in Brussels or Parnassus, Frankfurt or Olympus. The Greek tragic austerity is a way of showing us the horror of our own Austerity.
Robert Icke's retelling of Aeschylus's Oresteia is a completely captivating. It's a broad open stage, with two receding upstage spaces, shielded from us by translucent sliding screens, a witty contemporary take on the classical paraskenia. A long table dominates the stage for the first couple of hours, the family dining table around which we see a series of fraught meals, but also becomes a balcony for a returning hero and a deathbed for a murdered girl. The language is spare and clear, unfussy, unadorned. The text gives plenty of space for fascinating, horrifying scenes, like the one in which Agamemnon is persuaded to kill his daughter Iphigenia. This is hard enough to take in the original, so I wondered how this contemporary version could possibly make this plausible, but, with a terrible remorseless and cynical politician's logic, Agememnon's advisor makes the choice seem unavoidable. Oh God and the murder itself is devastating, precisely because it is so unfussy, so clinical, so caring; Iphigenia is put to death like a wounded dog, sitting on her father's knee, taking the tablets, slipping slowly away.
It's a real ensemble piece but I can't not mention Lia Williams as Clytemnestra and Angus Wright; she the ferocious politician's wife but with steel in her mind and a savage sensuousness; he the awkward, burdened statesman keeping nothing together, not his family, barely his state, trapped by circumstance. Jessica Brown Findlay is an astonishingly powerful, sexy, brooding Electra whose repeated emptying of a wine bottle into a decanter is a warning, an accusation, and a bodycount. The design is sensational: Hildegard Bechtler's screens give us shades and shadows of other lives and doubles the on-stage characters as ghosts and echoes. Natasha Chivers has produced perhaps the best lighting design I've seen in a theatre this decade. A series of pulses and punches, the lights ruthlessly expose the characters and their stories, the air itself feels like steel. I'd be surprised if I have a better evening at the theatre this year.
A reminder though of the stark choices that we have to make in this austere world. I hope the Greeks today vote for dignity against austerity, for democracy against tyranny, for Antigone against Creon.