Ancient Greek Theater In The Peloponnese

A slice of Greek living on Greece’s Peloponnese peninsula culminates in a trip to watch a play in an ancient amphitheater, which is still packing in audiences over 3,000 years after it was built.

Travel Article for Flung Magazine

The spell is momentarily broken when a squeal rips through the crowd on the other side of the amphitheater. A wayward snake has found his way in from the bushes and is wreaking havoc on the second tier

We’ve been in Ermioni, on Greece’s Peloponnese peninsula, for the better part of a week. One gets the feeling it was glitzy in the seventies, having now calmed to a subtler enclave for Athenians escaping the summer heat, although it’s not much cooler here, except for the ocean, which is unusually balmy, with brisk undercurrents of fresh, cool water a couple feet below the surface. The water is clear, and you can peer into the emerald coves far down to the rocks on the sea bed, until the sun drops in the sky and its rays create a reflective sheen that coats the sea like honey. We’ve been spending our days driving from beach to beach, in our little train of three cars packed with assorted parents, siblings, friends, beach umbrellas, hats, and a full bag of spinach and cheese pies from the Karagiannis bakery, the filo crumbling in our salty hands when we bite into them.

The nicer beaches are harder to find here, but not so difficult that they evade us. The group favors a beach called Kounoupi, though my favorites are the small rocky coves near the tip of Ermioni’s peninsula. Each night we trail into town, avoiding the trendy cocktail bars to sit outside in roadside tavernas for the standard family size portions of Greek salad, tsatziki, fries, horta (blanched greens), and heaping platefuls of calamari, white bait, and octopus, or giant sizzling lamb chops, a meal I could happily eat for the rest of my days. At night, the air cools a little, and we sit on the balcony overlooking the bay and watch the sailboats that have dropped anchor, squabbling and laughing until we drop off to sleep one by one.

We rise and repeat the same ritual each day. The world has shrunk to this rhythm and it has become a lazy little idyll, far from the dusty streets of Athens and New York, although not so far as one might imagine. Shades of their ugliness creep in through the occasional embittered comment about detention centers, or fascists, or dirty capitalists.They hang heavy in the hot air, and then sidle into the background. It’s not an easy time to live in Greece. The gregarious cultural energy is stretched thin in the crippled economy, and it wears on everyone despite their good humor.

One night, there is a disagreement over eating at a fish place or a meat place. It’s settled when one of the uncles concludes that in his town, “they say the best fish is lamb.” When we arrive at the taverna, a folk band plays traditional music. Pitchers of wine are flowing as plates of meat are passed around. We dance, and the band sings “this is the essence, there is no immortality.”

Tonight, however, we are trekking inland to the ancient theater of Epidavros. Aristophanes’ Lysistria will be performed in the giant stone amphitheater as it would have been 2,500 years ago, long before–as my sister artfully points out–many of today’s organized religions set foot in the minds of men. In Lysistrata, a bawdy ancient comedy, the Peloponnesian war between the Athenians and the Spartans is fictitiously resolved by way of a sex strike by the women of both cities, until the men, who traditionally sport oversized artificial genitalia, are driven mad with lust, and declare peace. One of the aunts tells me, “They could have killed Aristophanes for this one. But…” she concludes happily, “the society was progressive, and they liked it.”

On the way to Epidavros, we lose one car and, though worried about missing the start of the performance, we sit down at the nearest roadside taverna while hordes of cars pile in from Athens and chug past us. “This is what we do in my family,” chuckles my friend. “We bicker about being late…So of course the sensible thing to do is sit down and have a large meal.” He shoves another lamb chop onto my plate, grinning. We eat at breakneck speed as the wayward car emerges from around the bend, and finally usher ourselves briskly into the ancient grounds as dusk sets in.

I’m wearing the only smartish thing I’ve brought with me, a flowing white tunic dress and Greek sandals, much to the amusement of my hosts, who take my appearance for an odd form of cultural enthusiasm. My sister, dressed in blue, walks beside me and her friend half-earnestly says “you both look very nice. Very…um…Greek.”

We climb a windy stone path scattered with olive trees along with well-to-do Athenians, just as it would have been so unfathomably long ago, and I feel as if I am stepping into history. We pass through giant stone doorways and arrive at a colossal amphitheater, swarming with people that fill layer upon layer of ancient marble ledges like tiny, excited ants. Finding our section, we squeeze in and watch the horizon as night bleeds into the sky. The performance itself, staged by the national theater company, is an odd affair involving lingerie and boobs and dildos and a tinny repetitive piano chord that sounds anachronistically Bacchic as it rings out with ease into the upper reaches of the vast space. The experimental interpretation is lost on me and mostly I’m just confused.

When the plot takes the story into night, the lights fade out and the amphitheater darkens to reveal another show. Almost simultaneously, the crowd casts their eyes upward into the inky sky, now adorned with a sweep of achingly beautiful stars. In the distance, the Milky Way streaks diagonally across the amphitheater and I feel as if I am inside a marble. Layers of time peel away like an onion. An ancient day transitions into night on stage, and we sit on seats that are older than history, staring up into a sky that is older than time.

The spell is momentarily broken when a squeal rips through the crowd on the other side of the amphitheater. A wayward snake has found his way in from the bushes and is wreaking havoc on the second tier. Thousands of iPhones light up in a massive semicircle that sweeps the stone ledges and dims like a quasi ​stadium wave. The crowd’s attention turns back to the circular stage as the lights brighten to signal morning in the plot. Eventually, flagging a little on the unforgiving marble perches, we find ourselves clapping, and dissipate with countless others into the parking lot on the outskirts of the grounds. We speed back to Ermioni in search of souvlaki, driving past the hubbub at the roadside taverna, which is now bursting at the seams.

On the drive home, we fret a little about the performance, and talk about the male gaze. After a pause, I ask if this production is a one-off affair. “No,” replies someone from the front seat, “they actually stage plays in the ancient theatres quite often during the season.” I loll back in my seat feeling satisfied, enlivened by the thought that the ancients must be quite pleased to know that in all the mess of human history, the ampitheatre still pulses with life.