The theatre at Epidavros

The Theatre at Epidavros

The Theatre at Epidavros

Epidravros is in a beautiful, peaceful location, the air heavily scented with pine resin and oleander flowers, the classic mixture that immediately recalls Greece.

The theatre is on part of a much larger site at the top of a slope reached by pine shaded steps. It is smaller than I imagined and it has an amazing symmetry. You can distinguish quite clearly between the two parts of the seating: the lower set of tiers of 30 or so rows of the original theatre were built by the Greeks in the 4th century BC, and the upper 20 tiers were added by the Romans. The Roman part seems to me to be more roughly finished, as if they could not quite equal the mastery of the original builders, but overall the theatre is a remarkable feat of engineering.

Theatre at Epidavros

Theatre at Epidavros

Theatre at Epidavros

Theatre at Epidavros

All of the seats are made out of local limestone and are amazingly regular.

Theatre - stone seats

Theatre – stone seats

The exception to the use of limestone are the seats at stage level which are made from a red rock (or perhaps limestone with a red colour to it) and were used by dignitaries.

Dignitaries' seats - at Epidavros

Dignitaries’ seats – at Epidavros

Theatre - stone seat with armrest

Theatre – stone seat with armrest

The stage is a large circular space made of beaten earth in the centre of which is a disk that marks the original site of an altar to Dionysos. Behind the stage area is a space that was used as a backdrop and to store materials.

Looking down at the stage at Epidavros

Looking down at the stage at Epidavros

Beyond the stage area is a magnificent panorama of countryside and mountains: it must have been hard at times to concentrate on what was happening on stage.

Setting of the theatre at Epidavros

Setting of the theatre at Epidavros

One of the remarkable features of the theatre is its acoustic. When we were there visitors obliging stood on the stage and clapped or declaimed poetry, so it was easy to discover that wherever you sit in the theatre, not only do you have a clear view of the stage but you can hear sounds very distinctly too. Apparently tests have shown that the limestone used to build the tiers of seats has a peculiar property: it filters out low-frequency sounds (eg from the audience) allowing the actors on stage to be heard more clearly. In addition the masks used by the actors allowed them to project their voices so that they could be heard clearly round the theatre. It is strange to think that the theatre was only discovered again in the nineteenth century.

But why build such an elaborate theatre capable of holding over 10,000 spectators out in the middle of nowhere? I’ll cover that in my next post…

The changing sounds of English

They say that you can tell you’re getting older when policemen start to look younger. Don’t know about that, but I have noticed the new doctor at our practice looks like a student.

One of the other signs I have noticed is an increasing awareness of changes in spoken English. Not so much in grammar and spelling. I’ve given up on that because it would be a sign that I am attached to the English as I was taught at school as the yardstick for the language as a whole, and any changes are almost an assault on me as a person.

It relates more to certain changes in English pronunciation which are harder to understand. Some years ago, I first became aware of a change in the way people pronounce the words community and communications. The initial syllable com was being shortened to kim, so the words sounded like kimmunity and kimmunications  I thought at first that it was a local pronunciation issue, but since then I have noticed it has become more widespread and is now frequently to be heard in the broadcast media.

Then there’s the word nuclear. It is somehow morphing into nuc-a-lear. Even my son says it. Then there’s almond, now being pronounced as written, rather than armond.

Most recently I have come across a strange change in the pronunciation of the word vulnerable, which is being pronounced as if it didn’t have the first letter l: vunerable. Even Ian Duncan-Smith says it, though I suspect that he wouldn’t know what it meant if it bit him on the bottom.

Language changes all the time. If it didn’t we would all still be speaking like characters in Beowulf. We smile now at the strangulated upper class English vowel sounds of the 30s. Just listen to the way the Queen speaks now as compared with when she first came to the throne. But why do the sounds change at all? What is it that drives vowel sound shifts? Whatever it is, it seems that those changes happen more quickly because the media reflect and disseminate variations far more quickly than happened in the past.




Greek word origins

As I think I have mentioned before, one of the interesting things about learning Modern Greek is that my tutor, Maria, helps me remember words better when I come across them by explaining their etymology.

So there’s the Ancient Greek verb fio to give birth, grow, which is at the root of several Greek words which have also come across to English; fisi (nature) from which we get physics; fito (a plant) from which we get phyto- in plant compound names. Then there’s fimi which mean to speak in Ancient Greek and from which we get our word famous.

The word for God/god is theos which comes from an Ancient Grek verb meaning to look at something high up and is linked to directly to the word for a view (thea). I find that rather engaging and can understand that this makes sense in Greece where the home of the gods was believed to be a mountain (Mt Olympos) and temples were often built in high places.

Recently we came across the word for devil (diavolos or diaolos). Maria explained that this is a Greek word, not one that has been adopted into Greek and that it comes from a verb in Ancient Greek diavallo which means to slander. I was suddenly curious at what the Greek version of the Lord’s Prayer uses in the final line ‘But deliver us from evil’. In the Russian version (A izbavi nas ot Lukavogo), it translates as ‘Deliver us from the Evil [or Cunning] One’. The Greek version is the same as the Russian one:  alla risai imas apo tou ponirou. 

It strikes me as odd the difference in this one word between the old eastern and western churches. The western churches uses the abstract word evil (also in Latin sed libera nos a malo), whereas the eastern churches use more of a personification of evil.

The strange attraction of sadness

My Greek tutor has recently been introducing me to Greek poetry, especially the poetry of Odysseas Elytis. The Greeks seem to have a fondness for setting poetry to music; ranging from Theodorakis’s setting of Elytis’s To Axion Esti (It is truly meet) through to settings of his nature poems for children (Sea Clover and Cicadas). I was struck by one particularly bleak poem, called To Parapono (The Complaint). Here’s my translation:

Here, half-way along the road

The time has come for me to say

Other things are the ones I love

I set out for something completely different.

Amid the true and the false

I hereby confess

I was like someone else and not me

Acting in life.

No matter how careful you are

No matter how hard you search

It will always be too late

There is no second go at life.

There’s a particularly fine rendition of it by Eleutheria Arvanitaki, set to the music of Dimitris Papadimitriou played on solo piano – see here

It seems to tap into a deep theme of sadness that (admittedly in my very limited experience) is evident in Greek music and poetry. It reminds me a bit of the sadness that is a major feature of Russian folk songs. I mention this to Maria who agrees that this is a cultural phenomenon in Greece, but the interpretation is different. To us, non-Greeks, it may seem like wallowing in sadness. However, to Greeks, it’s almost like a form of Stoic innoculation. It’s as if in The Complaint Elytis were saying: ‘Yes, that’s how life is. There is no second chance, so get on with it!’

So that is how I have now moved on to exploring Greek mourning songs (Moiroloi) which have no equivalent in England. I will try and report back on that in future.

In the meantime, I often think about the question that Michael Berkeley sometimes asks his guests on BBC Radio 3’s programme Private Passions: why do we like sad music? I can’t remember any answer to this I have heard that is totally convincing. After all, if you have the choice why would you choose to listen to something that makes you feel sad as opposed to something that makes you happy?

Probably the most convincing explanation that I have come across was in another Radio 3 programme that Stephen Johnson, the musicologist, made about how the music of Shostakovich had on three separate occasions pulled him out of deep clinical depression (Shostakovich – A Journey into Light). Shostakovich is a composer of some of the darkest, bleakest, most despairing music written in the last century. Looking for an explanation for the effect of this music, Stephen Johnson turned to Professor Paul Robertson, one of the founders of The Medici Quartet and an expert on the connection between music and science. ‘Music can give you a ladder out of somewhere extreme and painful. It provides a locus of control: you can externalise your feelings, examine them and hence become aware that change is possible. It shows that something beautiful can come out of pain. It begins to give it meaning and everything can be borne if it has meaning.’

So dark music helps us to externalise and start to understand our dark feelings and in some way to start to be able to deal with them more objectively rather than be overwhelmed by them

Professor Robertson’s scientific understanding was also borne out by his experience as a musician. He used to play with the Medici Quartet in hospitals, often to patients in truly dire states of health. So they assumes that they should play ‘cheerful’ music. However, what the patients really wanted was darker music, such as Death and the Maiden and Shostakovich’s 8th String Quartet.

There is also one curious historical case of someone being cured of melancholia by music. In the eighteenth century, King Philip V of Spain probably suffered from bipolar disorder and started to live a nocturnal life which, of course, affected the whole court. To ease his pain, the famous Italian castrato, Farinelli, was invited to the court to sing 8 or 9 arias to the king and his wife every night.

In a dark wood

Somerset beeches

Certain places have a habit of plucking my sleeve, drawing me back time and again to capture them in different lights and different seasons. I have photographed these beech trees several times over the years and never caught exactly what I saw in them.

In my head, perhaps because of the low sweeping boughs, I saw a wild wood or fairy tale forest, something dangerous, unpredictable, full of the unknown and a bit constricting.

I had another go recently and, this time, with some better post processing, I felt I got closer to what I saw in my head.