Greece has been buzzing with excitement following the Euro 2004 victory and before the countdown to this summer’s Olympics. When I arrived in Athens on July 1, it looked like the whole city was being given a long overdue clean-up. After strolling around the Acropolis gardens where people were chatting as the heat of the day subsided, and children kicked up the dust playing soccer, the buzz was back at the entrance to the Herodes Atticus Odeon, where Yukio Ninagawa’s “Oedipus Rex” by Sophocles (496?-406B.C.) was being staged July 1-3.

For 68-year-old Ninagawa, this was his second major staging in Athens; his first was a now legendary “Medea” in 1984. This time, he had been invited by the Greek government to remount the production of “Oedipus Rex,” originally presented in Shibuya, Tokyo in 2002, for its Cultural Olympiad being held prior to the Olympics.

As a gong sounded in the evening air and the Acropolis was bathed in the light of a full moon, it was time to take my place in the semicircular rows of the now roofless Roman Odeon, built in 161A.D., which has been used as a venue for spectacles and entertainments, as well as for theater, since ancient times.

The half-ruined back wall of the theater’s faade, pierced with archways and windows, served as the rampart of Oedipus’ palace, with the flagged floor of the orchestra serving as the forecourt where most of the action would develop. Meter-high blackened burned-out lotus plants were arranged across the back of the stage. Apart from that, the only decoration was the subtitle board on the wall.

The chattering audience fell silent as the sonorous drone of traditional Japanese gagaku court music composed by Hideki Togi rose to usher in a shaven-headed chorus, wearing the thick red robes of Tibetan monks. This is the famous story in which Oedipus, adopted as the prince of Corinth and originally exposed as a child, kills Creon, the King of Thebes, not knowing he was his father and, in marrying Creon’s widow, also becomes the husband of his mother, just as the Delphic oracle prophesied at his birth.

Ninagawa first directed “Oedipus Rex” in 1976, then again in 1986, but this version is based on his third production of the tragedy that premiered at the Theatre Cocoon in Shibuya two years ago with the same cast in the protagonists’ roles (see JT review, June 19, 2002 at www.japantimes.co.jp).

For this open-air staging though, the director has dispensed with the original mirrored wall of that production and relies on acting, voice and the ancient mystery of the theater itself to draw the audience in; he had the nearly full audience of over 4,000 focused on every word of the colossal drama being played out before them.

It was the acting that stood out most of all. Ninagawa, through working with Rei Asami and Mansai Nomura over a long period of time, has dispensed with stage effects, focusing instead on the dynamic between the actors. As Ninagawa himself joked, after the performance, “to realize great drama does not need a director, but only a good script and good actors.”

At a news conference after the opening night, Nomura (also artistic director of Setagaya Public Theatre) said he at first struggled with the vast Roman auditorium, especially in conveying his fate to those sitting at the top and the back of the 32 layers of stone seats. Despite his wealth of experience working in open-air spaces, including Shakespeare’s Globe in London, he struggled with the space. He then described how Ninagawa came to the rescue, advising him to act as if he were doing it for a close-up in a movie, drawing the audience in, acting intimately while relying on his magnificent voice to carry across the distance.

Even though 38-year-old Nomura started out as a comic performer (being “born” into Kyogen at age 3), he seems to have an instinct for the nobility of the role; you could see Oedipus’s sorrow in Nomura’s very fingertips. He was matched by Asami as Jocasta whose interpretation of the moment of recognition was particular memorable: Instead of primal horror, she played it as a mother who is simply glad to see that her son is alive. Also memorable were veteran actors Haruhiko Jo as the prophet Tiresias and Tetsuo Sagawa as the priest. The whole cast must take credit for the standing ovation that this mostly Greek audience (and a few hundred Japanese) rapturously broke into as the moon shone down at the play’s end.

At the news conference, Ninagawa said had been feeling a great deal of tension right up until opening night; his confidence, however, was restored by the audience’s reaction. He said that he is ready to find new theatrical inspiration in his production of “As You Like It,” due to premiere at the Saitama Arts Center this autumn.

It was a remarkable weekend to be a Japanese theater-lover in Greece: 170 km away from Athens in the ruins of the Ancient Greek theater at Delphi, 45-year-old Satoshi Miyagi, founder of the Tokyo-based Ku Na’uka theater company, was making a short speech to his actors and staff before the premiere of their production of Sophocles’ “Antigone, ” which will come to Japan this autumn.

“Please concentrate on this moment and give your best performance for the gods in Delphi tonight. Please realize yourselves the meaning of this just one-time staging after two months’ hard preparation,” he said, with reference to the fact that Delphi was the place where the oracle first predicted Oedipus’ downfall. The story of Antigone is the third play in Sophocles’ Theban trilogy. After Oedipus’ exile, Thebes was ruled by his two sons, who fell out with one another, with Polynices leading a rebellion against his brother. When Creon (played by Kazunori Abe), Antigone’s uncle, bans the burial of the rebel Polynices, his sister Antigone (played by the consummate Ku Na’uka star, Mikari), daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta, attempts to give her brother an honorable burial. Angered by her willfulness, Creon has her walled in to a cave as punishment.

At Delphi, the stadium is built in to the side of the hill with Mount Parnassos towering behind, and, for this production, it was as if Miyagi had no wish to compete with this auspicious setting. His stage was simple and sparse, with just one low tower and a circle of what looked like giant white tusks representing Antigone’s cave. It was almost 10p.m. by the time the performance started and the sense of remote isolation in the gathering dusk only added to the atmosphere.

Miyagi had Creon played by six actors, often on stage at the same time commenting on one another, or arguing, speaking in unison with the “king” Creon, played by Kazunori Abe. A stunning directorial twist, for sure, but one given even more impact since the first appearance of the Creon troupe from the hillside behind the stage was timed to coincide with the sun going down. It was an extraordinarily beautiful and mysterious moment.

In keeping with Ku Na’uka’s style, the actors played percussion-based Asian and African folk music as well, while the gorgeously colorful kimono-based costumes they usually wear were replaced with simple white and silver that cast an almost divine aura over what was an expertly integrated, slow-paced, but almost heavenly staging.

Though the play finished around midnight, the Greek audience were in no hurry to leave, and instead gathered in groups to excitedly exchange opinions about the first Japanese interpretation of a Greek tragedy many had ever seen.

I, too, was so impressed, both then and the next morning, when I met a Japanese Ku Na’uka crew member who said he had no idea what he would be doing from today onward, as he had put all his effort and concentration into the previous night’s unique performance. It must have been a huge effort for both companies to take these productions to Greece, and yet in both cases it proved to be a rewarding experience for cast and audience alike.

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