A Night at the Theatre of Epidaurus

Words by Valerie Helps and photography by Geoff Bull

The theatre and first 6,000 seats were built in the 3rd century BC

I remember my first visit to Epidaurus (pronounced Epidavrus) the Lourdes of the Greek world and Sanctuary of Asclepius, the God of Healing and site of the ancient world’s best-preserved theatre, with the finest acoustics. First built early in the 3rd century BC it seated 6,000 and was later increased to 12,000 in the 2nd century BC by extending and dividing the rows of seats upwards, thus doubling the capacity. Miraculously, it survived the two major earthquakes in 522AD and 551AD that destroyed the surrounding sanctuary.

I climbed up ancient, worn steps into a clearing where the theatre, a semi-circle of fifty-four rows of tiered stone seats followed the natural curve the hill; the restored columns of two monumental gates stood on either side of the circular “orchestra” (stage) through which the chorus made their entrance. The Sanctuary was bathed in a clear morning light, that clarity of light peculiar to Greece and I wondered once again, what it was that numbed my brain when I visited these early Greek sanctuaries and shrines. Was it just the light? Or a combination of light, ancient stones and the presence of spirits that had this effect on me? It was as if I had drunk too much red wine on a hot day and was having difficulty focusing on the here and now. It happened every time.

The theatre follows the natural curve of the hill - (photo 123rf)

Henry Miller in his book ‘The Colossus of Maroussi’ speaks of his visit to Epidaurus: “In the stillness, in the great peace that came over me, I heard the heart of the world beat. I know what the cure is: it is to give up, to relinquish, to surrender, so that our little hearts may beat in unison with the great heart of the world.” And standing in the very centre of the great theatre scented by its forested slopes of green pines and cypresses, I too felt the same spiritual stillness.
And then I heard the nightingales. The trees echoed with their sparkling notes – it was as though I had been invited to a special concert by the Goddess Euterpe – alone but for the nightingales.
I tested the acoustics by dropping a coin onto the ground in the centre of the orchestra. The soft clunk as it landed was barely audible to me yet the sound flew to the top tier of the seats where it was heard with astonishing magnification. Then, I whispered and my voice echoed around me as if in a cave; my words travelled with clarity to my listening companion and I knew I had to experience a Greek tragedy in this magical theatre.

Comfortable thrones for spectators of consequence, benches for the rest

Epidaurus, several years later on the evening of the performance with my husband Geoffrey. We join a small queue at the inner gate which rapidly grows into a big queue. Just before 8pm the gates open and we are propelled forward past the gate keeper, who I notice is confiscating plastic bottles of water and throwing them into a nearby bin but he totally ignores the haversacks and carrier bags people are carrying. I suppose he has his reasons.
I understand that originally there were different levels of comfort in the seating; “ordinary” people sat on benches while spectators of consequence sat in separate “thrones” with carved backs and arm-rests. We must be in the second category as we have found perfect seats with curved back-rests to fit the shape of our bodies. We are fortunate for most of the backs of the stone seats have crumbled over the centuries. Our seats (which are not numbered, it is a free-for-all) are central and towards the top. We have our cushions, grapes and a bottle of cold wine. There are butterflies in the pit of my stomach, I am sitting where thousands of theatregoers have sat over the past 2,500 years, as entranced, as am I, by the wisdom of the ancient playwrights on hot summer nights. Did their discerning words silence the deafening cicadas, I wonder?

The audience of 12,000 begins to arrive as the sun sets

There’s a cooling breeze, the sun is low and the audience is arriving. The seats are filling up with mostly Greek couples in ultra-smart clothes; young people in scruffy shorts and hiking boots; some family groups, not many. I am feeling quite glamorous – after all it is not every night that one goes to see Sophocles’ tragedy “Electra” performed by the Greek National Theatre at Epidaurus.

Nea Epidaurus, a quiet little port with an attractive waterfront

The substantial and well produced programme in Greek and English is informative but I notice quite a few typos. I understand no children under six years are permitted yet there’s a curly-headed two-year-old sitting immediately in front of me. I hope he sleeps.
Ten to nine and it’s getting dark. Lights have been turned on; they blaze down on the late arrivals as they are hurried to their seats. It’s a serious crowd and there’s an atmosphere of intense concentration on many of the faces as they read the programme. But where are the musicians? They are listed with their conductor on the programme but they are nowhere to be seen. My heart sinks. Is the music pre-recorded? There is a big black box off centre stage with a panel of flashing red lights which would look more appropriate for Dr Who. Is it a gigantic loudspeaker?
Three sleek, black cars arrive; desultory clapping as a group of dignitaries is ushered to their cushioned seats on the lower level. As the lights are dimmed the entire audience leans forward, concentrating on half a dozen figures in black flowing robes who run around the stage laying what appear to be their cloaks on the ground. All is quiet.
Abruptly we are plunged into a Stygian darkness, as if we have been consumed by night. Spooky. The contrast, following the blinding white floodlights is a shock and I am recovering my equilibrium when I am almost propelled out of my seat by a tremendous and tumultuous crash of electronic instruments that reverberate and echo around the natural amphitheatre. The effect is riveting. Then – shafts of penetrating lights on the barrier of pines that flank the edge of the small plateau where the theatre sits – black-clad women of the chorus run around on silent feet, their flashlights seeking out the audience, the trees and the night sky. This is a new and experimental production by a young and innovative producer. I would have preferred to have seen the tragedy in its original form, however, the unusual use of light on this pitch black night is electrifying. It works. The tragedy is about to unfold.

The harbour at dawn in Nea Epidaurus

There’s no interval. The performance lasts two hours and Electra is emoting on-stage for most of the time. I have never seen an audience so rapt, so intent on hearing every precious word. The most touching scene is when poor Electra, tired, prematurely aged and consumed with bitterness, realises that the ashes in the urn she is holding are not those of her dead brother Orestes after all, and that the man standing before her is actually he, alive and well and come to take vengeance for the murder of their father. She picks him up and swirls round and round with him in her arms as the audience erupts, clapping and shouting. I do not believe there was a dry eye in the theatre.
The final, brilliant touch is the last scene where Orestes and the chorus chase Aegisthus – their father’s murderer – through the backdrop of giant trees with lights from a dozen torches invading every branch and bole and dark corner.
The use of the natural surroundings of the theatre is a stroke of genius. As for the acoustics – even when Electra was lying on the ground weeping and whispering, I could hear every syllable – I was quite wrung out at the end. We sat sipping wine as the audience left, streaming down the steep tiers, I wanted to sit there all night and re-live the experience but a uniformed man moved me on with a smile.
The tragedy was over and I hoped Sophocles was resting at ease as the electronic sounds echoed around the hills and valleys of Epidaurus.

TRAVEL TIPS
The theatre is 30km from Nauplion, an enchanting Venetian port with wonderful shopping, museums. Accommodation in converted Venetian mansions is atmospheric and expensive.
We stayed at the Posidon Hotel at Nea Epidaurus (New Epidaurus) a quiet little port fifteen minutes from the theatre. Our double room had air-conditioning that is not always found in these parts, with a balcony overlooking the harbour. Tavernas, bars and restaurants line the attractive waterfront with its well-equipped international marina. Poor beaches. For a good swim, drive north to Archaia Epidaurus (Ancient Epidaurus).

ABOUT VALERIE HELPS
Valerie Helps has written A Third of a Pond her second illustrated book, following the success of “The Voyages of de Villehardouin – Cruising French Waterways” published in 2018.
A Third of a Pond is about Valerie’s idyllic life in central France with Geoffrey, a retired architect and his restoration of a delapidated 200-hundred-year-old farmhouse and the charming friendship that evolves between the author and the inquisitive wild creatures from the forest and pond. Gardening is the author’s passion.
Publication date 30 April 2020
A Third of a Pond will be available at good book stores and online retailers including Pegasus Publishers, Booktopia, Book Depository, Amazon and Angus & Robertson. It can be pre-ordered now through
https://pegasuspublishers.com/books/coming-soon/a-third-of-a-pond