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Epidaurus Festval: The Story

According to Pausanias, the ancient theatre of Epidaurus was built between 340 and 330 BC and designed by Polycleitus, an architect from Argos. The historian was awed by the beauty and harmony of the structure. Its’ purpose was to provide entertainment and treatment for the patients of the nearby Asclepieion hospital, as it was believed that theatre performances had a beneficial effect on both mental and physical health. The theatre could accommodate 13,000 spectators and was divided into two sections. The twenty-one rows in the upper section accommodated commoners, and the lower section, an additional thirty-four rows, was reserved for priests and noblemen.

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The site was excavated between 1881 and 1926 by archaeologist Panagiotis Kavadias, under the auspices of the Archaeological Society of Athens. In 1938, the National Theatre presented Electra, directed by Dimitris Rontiris, the first modern production to be performed at the theatre. The tragedy by Sophocles was enacted in the ancient orchestra, without sets or lights (due to the lack of electricity), in the natural light of the late afternoon. Katina Paxinou and Eleni Papadaki played the roles of Electra and Clytemnestra. Performances were temporarily suspended during World War II and the civil war that followed. After the restoration in the early 50s, more spectators could be accommodated in the theatre.

The Epidaurus Festival was founded sixteen years after Electra. The 1954 production of Hippolytus by Euripides, directed by Dimitris Rontiris would act as a “dress rehearsal” for the newly established Festival, which was officially launched in 1955 with the production of Hecuba, directed by Alexis Minotis and starring Katina Paxinou. For the next two decades, the theatre was reserved for the exclusive use of the National Theatre. Although a variety of directors were involved in the productions, the performance styles tended to be similar. Both distinguished and new actors had the opportunity to participate in classical productions. The visual elements of the works were overseen by set designer Kleovoulis Kleonis and costume designer Antonis Fokas of the National Theatre, renowned for their architectural forms and chiton pleats respectively. In 1957, Mary Aroni starred in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, which was adapted by Alexis Solomos, in a performance that introduced new directorial approaches. Maria Callas, the great diva of opera, appeared for two consecutive years in Norma by Bellini (1960) and Medea by Cherubini (1961). In 1975, one year after the fall of the junta, the Epidaurus Festival opened its doors to the Art Theatre (Theatro Technis), which was a rival of the National Theatre. The legendary production of The Birds, directed by Karolos Koun, set design and costumes by Yiannis Tsarouchis, music by Manos Hadjidakis and choreography by Zouzou Nikoloudi, made a great impression on audiences. The comedy was followed by Aeschylus’ The Persians, also directed by Koun, with music by Jani Christou. The State Theatre of Northern Greece took part in the Epidaurus Festival for the first time in 1975, perfoming Sophocles’ Electra, directed by Minos Volonakis. In the years that followed, the Festival would welcome the Cyprus Theatre Organisation and the Amphitheatre of Spyros Evagelatos. By the 1980s, Epidaurus had embraced all theatre groups and actors. Noteworthy productions: 1978 – Melina Mercouri starred in Oresteia, adapted by Karolos Koun, in a production watched by 40,000 people! It was the first time a major star performed at the ancient theatre, but not the last, as many famous actors would perform at Epidaurus. 1981 – exceptional performances by Dinos Iliopoulos in Aristophanes’ Assemblywomen, and Manos Katrakis in Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. 1982 – Peter Hall directed Lydia Koniordou in Oresteia. 1989 – The Thessalian Theatre production of Electra. 1995 – Thodoros Terzopoulos’ Antigone. 2009 – Two big Hollywood stars came to Epidaurus, Dame Helen Mirren in Phèdre, directed by Nicholas Hytner, and, Ethan Hawke in Sam Mendes’ A Winter’s Tale. Over the years, several productions have sparked public debate. 1984 – Helen, directed by Andreas Voutsinas, featured topless dancing and fireworks; Alcestis by Yiannis Chouvardas; 1987 – Robert Sturua directed Jenny Karezi in Electra; 1990 – Minos Volonaki’s Antigone, starring Aliki Vougiouklaki, which received negative reviews because it was believed the popular movie star did not do justice to the role. 1997 – The Bacchae, directed by Matias Langhoff. 2008 – Anatoli Vasiliev’s Medea. 2011 – Sam Mendes is back with Richard III, starring Kevin Spacey. Since 2006, Epidaurus has become more international, welcoming famous artists to the ancient theatre. Moreover, co-productions have been organised with other festivals and theatrical organisations outside Greece. The question of what should be performed at the ancient theatre has always been topical, and the subject of many discussions and critiques from around the world. Nevertheless, the magic of a night in Argolis remains undiminished. After all, the land has been blessed for centuries. Epidaurus: an unforgettable experience!

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