“Everything is positive!”
Greece has assumed the mantle of Presidency of the European Union for the first half of 2014, but it is inevitable that people’s first anxiety is the state of the country’s parlous economy. Confronted by the unavoidable but gently posed question, Victoria Solomonidis, Minister Counsellor on Cultural Affairs at the Greek Embassy in London, was unequivocal: “Economic Crisis notwithstanding, the arts are thriving in Greece!”
A native of Athens, she has loyal enthusiasm backed up by events.
“If you go to the theatre listings, the concert and gig listings for Athens, you will find that there are as many arts events happening in Athens as in London! Tune in to the City of Athens radio Athina-984 and, along with a lively mix of music, current affairs, politics etcetera, at 5 minutes to the hour every hour there is a programme devoted to one item from all that’s happening in the city. There’s something for everyone, from stand-up comedy, a relatively new thing in Greece, to opera and ballet, to performances broadcast by, for example, the Royal Opera House, the Royal National Theatre and the Met to venues not only in Athens, but also in Salonica and other cities around Greece. In the Greek capital, a city of 4 million people, there is lots going on at all levels, from small venues in spaces such as decommissioned train coaches to multi-purpose cultural centres, such as the Onassis Cultural Centre, the Michael Cacoyannis Foundation, the Foundation of the Hellenic World and Megaron, the Athens Concert Hall. Last time I counted, there were more than 150 theatre venues alone, not to mention the cinemas and music venues of every kind. Film is also experiencing a revival, with young talented directors taking centre stage; three new Greek films were shown at the London Film Festival last October and six will be presented at the Berlinale this February.
“Of course, like every other sector, the arts have been affected by the crisis, but, at the same time, audiences seem to have grown and people are queuing for tickets. The venues have responded with special ticket prices for the young and the unemployed, free tickets are offered by radio stations to lucky listeners and, overall, the amazing variety in the programming creates a buzz over the city. Add to this the art shows in the numerous art galleries and the exhibitions staged at the Acropolis Museum, the Benaki Museum’s three venues, the Museum of Cycladic Art, the Byzantine Museum and the National Archaeological Museum, and you get the feeling that it is impossible to get bored in Athens!”.
What came as a surprise to me is that “most theatres receive no — or only small — subsidies from the state; the government provides some subsidies but even these have been cut back.” Thus, ironically, theatre can manage to seem to thrive since their model does not include major hand-outs. Of course, it cannot be easy, the audience is after all poorer, but the arts thrive on adversity and, in Greece, “Theatre for the Greeks is part of daily life, art is part of our way of living. Plays that have not even been seen in London are being put on by small groups, by big groups, in theatres and, as I said, even on train coaches. The National Theatre regularly attracts capacity audiences in its three venues. The productions staged at the National Opera are sold out weeks in advance, with performances taking place not only at the main venue but also in small, inner-city cultural centres and other unusual venues, under the umbrella title “Opera in a Suitcase”. Recently, opera was literally taken into the streets: for the Maria Callas anniversary last September, a peripatetic concert took place. It stopped at 5 Athenian spots special to Callas and culminated with a huge open air event outside the National Archaeological Museum, with some 3000 people following the itinerary!
“Yes, there is a crisis; yes, people are having to make do with much less; but then for the Greeks the artistic life is the last thing that will go, it is part of daily life — the air we breathe.”
In this spirit, the Greeks look forward to the 2015 opening of the Stavros Niarchos Cultural Centre, which will comprise the National Library of Greece and the Greek National Opera in a 170,000 sq.m (1.83 sq. ft) landscaped park on Faliro bay, just 3km south of Syntagma Square.
And, in an unusual wave of the flag, wherever there is a Greek diplomatic mission there is to be a programme celebrating the Greek presidency, even in countries outside the Union. Nobody can deny that the crisis has given the country a mixed press in the wider world, but in that framework the Greeks have been inspired to remind the world that this most ancient of civilisations has been at the heart of things European for some thousands of years; cash is cash but you cannot take that away.
In the UK, the Greek Presidency cultural celebrations are already under way: To kick off there was a concert of Greek Music through the Ages in the magnificent, grade I listed Cathedral of St Sophia, Moscow Road, London W2 (22 January), followed by a panel discussion on ‘War…Love…Politics…Does Greek drama matter now?’, which was organized at King’s College London on 4 February with Tom Holland, Natalie Haynes, Edith Hall and Rosie Wyles, who feature on BBC4’s “Greek Drama: The Greatest show on Earth”, the three-part series starting on 5 February.
As Victoria says, “Everything is positive!”
Among the events on the official cultural programme for the Greek EU Presidency are an exhibition in Brussels entitled “Nautilus: Navigating Greece“, at the Centre for Fine Arts till 27th April. The show, exploring the intimacy between Greek culture and the Mediterranean Sea, brings together nearly 100 objects from more than thirty Greek museums, some travelling for the first time. The oldest are around 3,000 years old.
In Edinburgh, two exhibitions are planned: one, on the theme of how Greece travels, epitomised by the phrase “Athens of the North” used of Edinburgh for some hundreds of years, will be hosted at the Story Telling Centre, and the other, following travel in the other direction, will capitalise on the Hellenism of Lord Byron, whose archive has recently been acquired by the National Library of Scotland.
Lincolnshire is the unlikely focus of an unlikely tale in the history of poets. The Greek Romantic poet Andreas Calvos, born in the Greek islands in 1792, had a peripatetic life that took him to Pisa and Florence, then to Switzerland, and on to London in his mid-twenties. After only a few years he was back on the road, but with a growing reputation, and settled in Corfu. At the age of sixty he returned to Britain and settled at Louth, on the Greenwich meridian in Lincolnshire, east by north-east of the cathedral city, where he died in 1869. In June 1960 the poet George Seferis, then Greek ambassador in London, had his remains transferred to Zacynthos, the island where Calvos was born. In June this year a festival exhibition at Louth will celebrate the work of both Calvos & Seferis.
King’s College London is a noted champion of Greek culture and the Centre for Hellenic Studies celebrates its quarter century this year with a series of talks by noted Hellenists in May. From 12 to 14 February, the Classics Department will be celebrating the 60th production of a Greek play with the staging not least of Aristophanes’ “The Wasps“. The question “Does Greek Drama Matter Now?” was debated at a round table discussion on 4th February.
Also in London, not so much ‘taking to the streets’, but sort-of, over 2,000 carriages of the London Underground will feature “Greek Poems on the Underground” with Greek poets and Greece in poetry, from Sappho and Plato to Cavafy via Byron and Keats.
Europe House, Smith Square will host an exhibition of Modern Greek Printmaking from 4th to 23rd May at the 12-Star Gallery, selected from the Yannis Papaconstantinou Collection, with works by over forty artists.
Also at Europe House there is the opportunity to attend two separate Greek taster classes on Thursday 27 February and Thursday 13 March from 6pm to 8pm which will be given by Dr Eleni Markou, who teaches Modern Greek at King’s College London. No prior knowledge of Greek is needed as the classes are intended to give participants an introduction to the language.
But finally, perhaps the most adventurous of all, is the use of the occasion of the Greek Presidency to advance the case for the teaching of ancient Greek in schools around the UK. “Classics for All” is behind a project at Burntwood School in Tooting, for instance, that will not simply stimulate learning in the future but remind the pupils that with a culture and language over three thousand years old there is after all an alternative to the latest thing. Everything is positive!
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