There is not much action, barely even a plot, in “The Persians.” People just mill about, talking (admittedly rather intensely) about events (admittedly of the tragic kind) that happened far away.
Yet this National Theater of Greece production unleashes gale-force sound and fury. At its peak, the show hits like a blow to the solar plexus, taking your breath away — the impact is only slightly dulled by watching online.
First produced in 472 B.C., Aeschylus’s “The Persians” is considered the oldest surviving Greek play. This Dimitris Lignadis staging was broadcast live on Saturday from the ancient amphitheater of Epidaurus; in the spirit of the theater, no recording exists online. The venue was originally conceived as part of the city’s asclepeion (a healing center) because the Greeks considered the balance between body and soul essential to good health. Let’s all wistfully ponder that philosophy.
The show deals with the aftermath of Salamis, a naval battle in which the outnumbered Greeks routed the mighty Persian army 2,500 years ago. At a time when our horizons are closing in, it is downright vertigo-inducing to virtually join a live audience in watching (subtitled) live actors all the way in Greece as they perform a millenniums-old play.
Aeschylus himself had fought at Salamis, but his play has a twist: This veteran of the winning side set his story among the defeated, casting a fairly sympathetic eye on his recent enemies’ distress.
A chorus of Persian men, wearing long, tan-colored skirts and white button-down shirts, opens the proceedings. They are in their capital city anxiously waiting for news of their king, Xerxes, who is off duking it out with Athens.
Enter Xerxes’s widowed mother, Queen Atossa (Lydia Koniordou), in a rather large black gown that appears to wear her, rather than the reverse; she is a human in an exoskeleton of fabric, both vulnerable and formidable. Koniordou, who is among Greece’s greatest stage actresses, knows the role inside out — she directed and starred in an earlier National Theater of Greece production of “The Persians” that played New York City Center in 2006 — and she anchors the proceedings without seemingly doing much at all. For the most part, she stands in the middle of the circular stage, effortlessly projecting smoldering fury and agonizing sorrow as the scope of the disaster that befell the home troops is revealed.
The apprehension everybody was feeling is confirmed, in harrowing details, by a messenger (Argyris Pandazaras) returning from the front. In an absolutely incredible scene, he recounts the battle, whipping himself into a frenzy as the chorus members dance around him and Giorgos Poulios’s drone-like score swells to what must have been a deafening level.
Later they are joined by Atossa’s dead husband (Nikos Karathanos), summoned from the underworld, and Xerxes (Argyris Xafis), who has somehow escaped alive from the wreckage. Pieces of string on his tunic mark blood (Eva Nathena’s exquisite costumes always contribute to the storytelling). The characters lament the lost lives and devastation together, in an act of communal mourning.
Quite a bit of the classical theater we see in the United States attempts to make it more accessible in one way or another. Often this is done with relatively naturalistic line readings, in an effort to make the text less foreign, easier to digest. But Lignadis and his troupe fully embrace declamation, which may sound a little forced to modern ears but highlights the text’s rhythmic power. While technically they do not sing, for example, the four lead actors essentially deliver arias, achieving an incantatory power that feels otherworldly.
We never forget, though, that the play is rooted in emotions that are all too human.