‘There is nothing more magical’: resurrected theatre brings ancient Greece to life

New passion for reviving country’s monuments is returning Little Theatre of Epidavros to heart of community

For nearly two millennia, the Little Theatre of Epidavros lay underground. Its engraved seats, concentric and tiered, belonged to a world of roots; in this case the roots of an olive grove owned by Christos Zafiris, a local farmer. “They say that had it not been for pigs digging at the soil, we might never have known of its existence,” says Prof Vassilis Lambrinoudakis. “Until the appearance of the stones in 1970, the theatre was a secret hidden under the earth for 18 centuries.”

The classical archaeologist, renowned for his work at Athens University, has spent more than four decades ensuring the chance find would not go to waste. Excavations have not disappointed. Inscriptions discovered at the site, on the slopes of a peninsula overlooking the sea, have shed light on the history of those who may have commissioned the theatre. Evidence of multiple phases of construction, starting in the mid-fourth century BC, have further illuminated the ancient city of Epidavros that once surrounded the architectural gem.

Excavations at the Little Epidavros Theatre.
Excavations at the Little Epidavros Theatre. Photograph: Vassilis Lambrinoudakis

For those who flock to the resurrected theatre’s festival every July, the venue, roughly 95 miles south-west of Athens, rivals its slightly younger but much more famous sister, the 12,000-seat ancient playhouse barely 10 miles away long regarded as Greece’s best theatre acoustically and aesthetically.

“It’s among our top 10 20th century finds,” says Lambrinoudakis, a sprightly octogenarian pointing to the Little Theatre’s upper tiers. “More than any other remnant of the past, ancient theatres speak to us. They contain a message of life that modern society has a thirst to share. It is our duty to bring them alive.”

In a country as culturally rich as Greece, ancient arenas, like other antiquities, are no stranger to abandonment and decay. Overstretched budgets, an unwieldy bureaucracy and public oversight have all been blamed for ruins falling victim to the ravages of neglect and time. But officials are now on a mission to revive the monuments. And, with the aid of private sponsorship and EU funds, headway is being made.

South of little Epidavros, restoration work on the 17,000-seat ancient theatre of Sparta was launched last year. In Larissa, reconstruction of central Greece’s biggest open-air ancient theatre is on course to be completed. As excavations have progressed, authorities have reported thousands of inscriptions and hundreds of sculptures being unearthed.

Farther north, in Epirus, one of Europe’s poorest regions, plans are afoot to make five ancient Greek theatres the centrepiece of a 214-mile cultural route taking in 2,500 years of history. The EU will provide 80% of the €24m the project is slated to cost.

The Little Epidavros Theatre.
The Little Epidavros Theatre. Photograph: Vassilis Lambrinoudakis

“The attitude towards ancient theatres has changed,” says Stavros Benos, a socialist former culture minister and the force behind Diazoma, an NGO set up to promote the monuments’ enhancement. “In recent years, works have been conducted on around 40 theatres. They’ve received a breath of fresh life.”

Benos has long campaigned for the ancient relics to be regarded not as museum pieces, “or dead things”, but “living organisms” that should be integrated into everyday life. If placed at the centre of cultural heritage trails and archaeological parks, the theatres will, he believes, help raise Greece’s cultural profile while improving tourism.

The NGO has mapped 140 ancient arenas across Greece. Twenty-five are in operation, hosting performances and other events; another 20 are under renovation. Established as a citizens’ movement in 2008, a year before the onset of Greece’s debilitating debt crisis, Diazoma derives its support from private donations and members encouraged to contribute to “piggy banks” by adopting sites. The model has been phenomenally successful. Philanthropic foundations in Greece and abroad have weighed in; so, too, have private companies, allowing the organisation to bankroll the engineering and other studies necessary for the culture ministry to file EU funding requests.

“Theatres are unique,” says Benos, who was appointed by the centre-right government last year to oversee the resuscitation of the fire-ravaged island of Evia on account of his holistic approach to regeneration. “From antiquity, they are the only monuments to have had the same use. Because of their harmony, their architectural beauty and their relationship to the natural environment, people have a particular fondness for them. It’s why they’re so symbolic.”

Professor Vassilis Lambrinoudakis at the Little Theatre of Epidavros.
Professor Vassilis Lambrinoudakis at the Little Theatre of Epidavros. Photograph: Helena Smith/The Guardian

Indicative of the country’s archaeological abundance, Epidavros’ little theatre is one of six ancient arenas in Argolida in the eastern Peloponnese. Of the three still in use, the splendid 20,000-seat theatre of ancient Argos is the biggest.

Hewn out of the rock of a foothill within view of the modern town, the Hellenistic third-century BC monument was opened to the public after years of restoration work in 2004. Plays and other performances are now held at the venue, with audiences sitting in the lower tiers – better preserved as they, too, were covered by earth – although the full theatre has 89 rows of seats.

“But when you open up an ancient site, there are always constant worries,” says Alcestis Papadimitriou, the culture ministry official who heads the region’s antiquities department. “You worry about people’s safety and you worry about the monument being damaged.”

The German-trained archaeologist does not believe that antiquities should necessarily be opened. Rather, she says, they are there to force viewers “to remember history, to remind them of the past”.

Yet on hot summer nights, she also accepts there is nothing better than being entertained in an ancient Greek theatre. “When the lights go out, you forget about the stifling heat and how uncomfortable you might be and you’re taken back in time,” she says, marvelling at the ancient site. “You’re there, sitting where the ancients would have sat, and there is nothing more magical.”

At Epidavros’ Little Theatre, the work is far from over. There are two more tiers to reconstruct, limestone steps to consolidate, and retaining walls to rehabilitate either side of the arena.

Prof Lambrinoudakis has no idea how much time his team will need. What he does know is that after so long underground, the site still has secrets to reveal. “It will take as long as it takes,” he smiles. “A few more years of research and work is nothing compared to the 24 centuries that this theatre has existed, in this corner of Greece.”


Helena Smith in Epidavros

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