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Alla Shenderova

"Journey with Dionysos.
The Theatre of Theodoros Terzopoulos"
("Theater der Zeit") 2006



Alla Demidova

Alla Demidova
Photo by Marina Livanova

From their very first production in Russia, Terzopoulos and the Attis Theatre attracted interest in Russia. His perfomances of The Bacchae and The Medea Material were shown as guest performances in Moscow, Kiev (Ukraine) and Tbilisi (Georgia). Terzopoulos won favour with Moscow audiences with his performance of The Persians by Aeschylus which he was invited to show at the 1st International Chekhov in 1992. The Russian public also saw Prometheus Bound, Raging Heracles and Ajax - The Madness among others.

In 1993, Terzopoulos worked for the first time with Russian actors. He directed his version of Heiner Muller's Quartet in Moscow and in 1996, he directed the monologue Medea after Euripides and Muller with the Russian diva actress Alla Demidova.

Theodoros Terzopoulos

Theodoros Terzopoulos
Photo by Johanna Weber

Similarly, he initiated the International Theatre Olympics with the prominent directors Tadashi Suzuki, Bob Wilson and Yuri Ljubimov in 1993. During the 3rd International Theatre Olympics, which took place in 2001 in Moscow, he presented his productions of Raging Heracles and Hamlet, a Lesson.

As an innovator of performance methods for ancient tragedy, Terzopoulos led. several training courses and master classes in Moscow. On the invitation of Valery Fokin, the director of the Meyerhold Centre, he finally developed a new variation of his production The Persians with master pupils from the centre.


Alla Demidova, one of the few tragic actresses today, pupil of Yuri Ljubimov and founding member of the Taganka Theatre, founded her own theatre in the early 1990s. She got to know Theodoros Terzopoulos at the Theatre Festival in Ouebec in 1990. Demidova was invited to the festival with her production of Phaedra and Terzopoulos came with Quartet by Heiner Muller.

Alla Demidova & Dmitry Pevtsov, Quartet

Alla Demidova & Dmitry Pevtsov
Photo by Valery Plotnikov

Phaedra, a production by the director Roman Wikjuk after the tragedy by Marina Zwetajewa, was an attempt to unite the body language of modern ballet with poetic language. Terzopoulos' search for a new theatrical language to interpret ancient tragedy went in the same direction. It is hardly surprising therefore that Alla Demidova and Theodoras Terzopoulos agreed to work together after seeing one another's performances.

Terzopoulos was invited by the actress to come to Moscow and staged a new version of Quartet in which Alla Demidova and Dmitri Pevtsov played on the small stage of the Taganka Theatre.

This version was quite distinct from the one that he had directed in his Athens theatre. There, the action had taken place in a black courtyard (in Muller's version, it is a bunker after the 3rd World War) surrounded by mountains of rubbish. Olia Lazaridou who played the Marquise Merteuil, had on a short, crumpled skirt and was wearing crude shoes on her otherwise bare feet. The performance which was shown in Moscow on the other hand, was optically opulent with wigs, sophisticated make-up and stylized costumes for the marquise created by the costume designer Alla Koschenkowa.

The melodramatic story - as is generally known, Muller's play is based on Dangerous Liasons by Laclos - became the story of unrequited love in Terzopoulos and Demidova's version. The hero and heroine's obsessive revelations and their efforts to cause each other pain are shown to be a mere mask to hide their real feelings. These feelings are of such strength that it is not enough to simply "cry and lie together", as in Zwetajewa's Phaedra; no, they must die together.

Some time later, Terzopoulos suggested to Demidova that she should play Medea in the modern version by Heiner Muller. The Medea Material, never before performed in Russian, reflected the psyche of Medea at the end of the 20th century with an unflinching exactitude. This Medea did not appeal to the gods and confer with the chorus. In the sharp, cynical tone of a modern feminist, she screamed forth her mental agony.

However, the paradox was that Terzopoulos and Demidova set Muller's post modern play back in the realm of classic tradition by enriching it poetically and aesthetically, it could have been mistaken for the work of a poet from the so-called Silver Age of Russian literature. They added a monologue from Euripides' tragedy to Muller's text, translated by Innokentij Annenskij. The performance, which was pierced by an aura of beauty, was dedicated to the director and painter Sergei Paradschanov. Alla Demidova was a friend of Paradschanov's and Theodoras Terzopoulos had been able to meet him during the guest performance in Tbilisi.

Medea - Alla Demidova

Medea - Alla Demidova
Photo by Natali Malanina

Terzopoulos' Medea is certainly comparable to one of Paradschanov's wonderful collages which combines glass fragments from a bottle with precious stones, pieces of fine lace and sweet papers. The only difference was that the elements of the performance were more equal. "I thought of Gordon Craig and the No Theatre. I said to Alla, "Now do it like Sarah Bernhardt or Eleanora Duse. And she did it."Those were Terzopoulos' memories of the performance. Archaic Greek recitative alternated with arias from Medea by Cherubini, the statue-like frontal scenes interchanged with stylized Georgian dances. Sometimes the actress' voice was childlike and tender; sometimes it sounded like the bellowing of a dam who had lost its young.

The stage designer Ermofilos Hondolidis created a very beautiful setting for Medea; the stage was hollowed out and black, and a grey cocoon as if woven from ash hung over Medea during her monologues and sank on top of her at the end. In the course of the action, she appeared in the wedding garments of a Georgian ruler. Demidova's Medea, herself tries on the poisoned bridal dress she, the jilted wife, sends to Jason's newly chosen one.

Every movement embodied a majestic clarity which was a forcible reminder that Medea is the grand-daughter of Helios. Nothing remained of the ruffled bird with broken wings which once appeared as Electra directed by Ljubimov. Medea appeared as an impressive, archaic phoenix. As she began to give her confession, she was wrapped in an enormous black coat which was divided into two at the back; the coat-tails were fixed to the floor. During the monologue, she stepped forward and the coat-tails became taut, a tribute and reminder of Gordon Craig's Hamlet. She carried her pain, up to a certain point, with the greatest of dignity and announced the most horrible of' fessions in a highly well-mannered tone. "Do you want to see the new bride burn?" she asked not her sons but the audience in the theatre. In turn, a feeling a dread crept up on those watching, triggered off by her mainly calm, almost casual speech. The tragic element built up slowly as Medea' majestic composure suddenly spun into animalistic anger.

After she had thrown off the Greek diadem and cape which was similar to skin, and then stood in the garments of a Georgian ruler, she began a triumphant dance of joy to Georgian music. It was a dance of liberation. She no longer had to disguise herself; she was a Barbarian, not Hellenic. She intoxicated herself whilst dancing on the feel ings prior to revenge, and to intensify her feelings, Medea attempted to experience the torturous death of her rival lover with her whole body. A long time previously, she had betrayed Kolchis for her love of Jason and had killed her brother. Jason's infidelity sobers her and at the same time makes her take leave of her senses. Like the Danaides fill a bottom less barrel with water, or Sisyphus rolls his stone uphill, she wrangles with Jason and demands the return of her dead brother. Then she begins to ask the wet nurse, once more in a tender yet penetrating and glittering voice, "Where is my husband?" In this way, she flays herself for her betrayal.

The voices of Jason and the wet-nurse are captured in her memory. They are wrested from her throat as noises; Jason bristling with self-satisfaction, the nanny whose age is gnawing at her. Medea's conscience is cloudy and meanders like a river. One state leads to another and every line can take on the rhythm of a dance.

To find a modern spoken equivalent of Euripides' archaic work is impossible. To make sense of Terzopoulos' Medea, one has to force oneself to listen not so much to the text as to the intonation. This is also true for Europeans who watch the No Theatre. Then every symbol starts to take on a much bigger dimension. Not only was the choreography and lighting direction in the performance highly artificial, but also the 'score' of the voices. Medea's essence is revealed in its melody which is divided into hundreds of sounds and semi-tones, emitted from a throat.

Heiner Muller's text, which forms the first and main part of the performance, set a certain tone for deviations from the actual progression of the play. This was at times a parody full of mischief, a roguish game; the overly 'fairytale" quality of Jason's and the nanny's voices or the excessive naivety of Medea's voice itself in dialogue with Jason. The frequent flickering of reason only served to strengthen the feeling of the grotesque. Shortly afterwards, Medea summed up, "My life is a comedy."

Did Medea actually have children? It will remain unknown for all eternity. We know the humiliated Kolchis existed and Jason's infidelity. She might have imagined the children to punish herself even harder for her betrayal. But if she had actually had children, she could not have neglected their interests. In a mocking tone when opening a musical clock, she kept on asking, "Do you love your sons, Jason?" and then slammed the lid shut. At the end, she opened the clock again and burned two scraps of paper on the palm of her hand. Fine columns of smoke rose up from the glowing ash."What? All the blood run off?" Medea asks, suddenly full of presentiment. Like blood flows from an open vein, her pulsating memory emptied itself of its terrible images. The last part of the performance, Euripides' monologue "Oh children! Oh children!" sounded like a lament interrupted by outbursts of anger at her own indecision. The monologue broke off. It seemed as if she would start over again and then lose control completely. But Medea had no more words or sounds to convey the terrible events of her fate. She stepped on to the apron of the stage and stretched her hands out into the theatre. A last, mute wail of lament literally breaks over the audience. The grey, glittering cocoon sinks down, the wagon which the granddaughter of the Sun God should ascend in to Helios.

At a press conference after a performance of Medea in Moscow, Demidova remembered her work on the role. "When I acted well, or as I felt was good in relation to my inner feeling and the spoken text, Theodoras said." It's not going to work today..." When I simply kept to the internal score of the text, or concentrated on 'technique' or on Jason, whom 1 was having an inner dialogue with and acted carefully if not coldly, Theodoras said, "Today it's perfect And then I finally understood what I had sensed in my role as Electra - you cannot play it from your own feelings. In ancient Greek tragedy, there has to be a division between actors and roles. And the greater the distance, the better the result. Because I am not Medea."

Today, nine years after the performance, the actress formulates this in the following way. "Tragedy demands complete self-ignorance from the actor. You are empty, just a container for the emotions and feelings of the character. You cannot play yourself but a phantom which re leases itself from the text. That's what I learnt from Terzopoulos."

Apart from this, Demidova claims that the Greek director helped her to do the following:

1. Free her voice, which was low by nature and to broaden her voice range considerably. In Terzopoulos' theatre, there is a special system for dealing with the actor's voice and body which makes an organic existence in tragedy possible.

2. To take on Terzopoulos' characteristic minimalism in dramatic gesture and expression. "Terzopoulos did not force upon me the training he did in his theatre with the Greeks. He simply set up clear boundaries by doing the scenes frontally for the most part. If I even turned slightly to the side, he said, "Not like that!"

3. To create a special method of dramatic acting through the experience of doing a monologue which is known as "acting in the vertical." "Who am I acting for?" Demidova asked herself. "Students in acting school are no allowed to separate from their partners and either act for themselves, in which they make an effort towards inner truth and naturalness, or for their partner, in which they are repelled by the other's reactions. [...] The ancients acted for God, for Dionysus, or in other words for a 'third party' along the following triangle:

I       Partner

This so-called triangle is a working term for actors: "partner - audience - figure", "partner - director - I". At the Meyerhold centre it was "author - director - actor." My 'triangle' is antiquity. And in tragedy, it is obligatory. 'God' can be seated within the actor but it is better to banish him to the front row so that the entire audience in the theatre is penetrated by your energy," says AlIa Demidova.

The performance with Alla Demidova and Dmitri Pevtsov stood out at many international theatre festivals and ran for two seasons in Moscow at the Taganka Theatre. Medea, the monologue with Demidova and directed by Terzopoulos in his Attis theatre, was shown during the 2nd international Chekhov Theatre Festival in Moscow.

Hamlet, a Lesson, by Boris Pasternak after Shakespeare - the last joint production between Demidova and Terzopoulos to date - was also performed in Athens. It was first shown in Moscow in June 2001 during the International Theatre Olympics. Hamlet, a Lesson belongs to the repertoire of the Athens theatre group Attis where it is occasionally listed on its schedule.

This performance, which was created five years after Medea, is much more full of tension. Terzopoulos' style of directing is far more noticeable - sparse, ascetic, feeling out, making the tragedy imperceptibly more acute and continually leading to an emotional climax.

Hamlet offers a wide range of unexpected nuances and paradoxical reactions. Hamlet sticks his tongue out and grins at Yorick's empty eye sockets. He laughs resoundingly, scolds himself for his own tentativeness at the act of revenge, breaks into tears and suddenly starts beating his behind saying," Who wants to wallop me?"

The tone of philosophical fearlessness and emotional anarchy is coupled with the measured, propriety of the actor's voice. "I wanted all the attempts to clarify the network of relationships between Hamlet, the ghost, Gertrude and Ophelia to appear as if they were part of a closed family drama. I had a master class in mind. That way, Alla appeared in the performance as a great actress and also as an acting teacher" explained Theodoras Terzopoulos.

As a teacher, she gives lessons on stage to the two young Greek actresses Sophia Hill And Athanasios Georgiou. Demidova's delightfully soft tone of voice is at odds with her appearance-severe blonde hair done in a square, black coat and round glasses with black frames. She steps up to the audience, says Hamlet's words when he greets the wandering actors and manages to create the complete illusion that these thoughts arose from her long and painful experience as an actress and have just found expression in words. She does not insist that she is Hamlet and does not play a man either. She projects his through herself like the director projects his shadow the grey firewall and the shadow becomes the ghost. She only recites a few passages from Pasternak/Shakespeare and then goes back to her pupils, laughing shyly. Just a rnent before, she had stretched her hands out to the shadow and tears of horror had run down her cheeks.

As the scenes progress, it becomes visibly more difficult for the teacher to find her way back to reality. In the end, she disappears; the teacher who, in her eagerness, scatters the sheets with the text which are no longer nee Life is acted out. There is nothing left to teach - or is it Hamlet? "Soon it will happen; the meantime is mine / A hurnan life is as if one has counted to one," says Demidova almost youthfully and carefree, almost dancing, and withdraws back into the depths of the stage until she disappears into niche in the wall. The stage is bathed in a red light again which becomes hazier and darkness falls.

As a student of the Schtschukin Theatre School, Demidova had rehearsed Hamlet's monologues on the advice of a pedagogue. In 1964, she had nearly played the role in a production by Nikolai Ochlopkov. Since then, article; and interviews with her have appeared with the headline "Why I want to play Hamlet." The Hamlet discourse ultimately became an inseparable part other image.

However, there is a price for such a pastime. To allude to Nietzsche, we can say that Demidova had transformed herself for such a long time into Hamlet that he ultimately transformed her. In 1999, the American director Bob Wilson offered her the part and she turned it down. Then came Terzopoulos' suggestion.

The ingenuity and wit with which the director and actress assembled the text to a whole, even though in principle they created an entirely new play, allows us to imagine just how well they knew Hamlet's story as well as their own biographies.

In this performance, it was not revenge which was Hamlet's main goal - far more important was the preservation of spiritual cleanliness, even to the point of paying for it with his life. It was crucial to stand calm in confrontation with the world of the unfathomable. Demidova's Hamlet is ascetic and sophisticated. His reflections border on self-castigation and he castigates those he loves. He mocks bis mother and be hits Ophelia in the face with the elastic stalk of a lily.

Alla Demidova, Hamlet, a Lesson

Alla Demidova
"Hamlet, a Lesson"
Photo by Mikhail Guterman

Demidova plays all the roles of the Hamlet fragment herself. She throws a heavy dark kimono around herself - reminiscent of the way men take on women's roles in the No and Kabuki Theatre - and with her right hand, she slips on a red velvet glove. The left hand, Gertrude's hand, waves coquettishly and writhes around. The right hand, Hamlet's hand, grabs her forcefully and 'strangles'. Artful femininity and angry directness are in this act: the intonation of the mother, in a parody of her earlier Gertrude in Yuri Ljubimov's famous Hamlet production and the intonation of the son, accumulated anger and sharpness. Then, a divided, white kimono, strange movements and lilies weighing in her bands - Ophelia. The slightly overacted girl's melody of her voice, slowly breaking into the terrible, deep pity which is hidden in Hamlet's words, "I d-do not l-love you." (In Hamlet's reply, Demidova stretches out the consonants just as Wyssozkij did during his time.) But still, speech itself is not the most important part here but body language instead, referring back to ancient Japanese traditions when the woman was always a small burden.

The emotional climax of the performance is the scene when Ophelia falls into madness. Crying over her father, she throws sweet-smelling freesias into the audience. That way, flower by flower, she slowly builds herself up into a rage, until she flings away a whole armful of flowers.

As in Medea, intonation and body language are the supporting elements of the Hamlet performance. However, in contrast to the eclectic Medea performance, where the stage design was captivatingly beautiful, in Hamlet, there are only black drapes at the side of the stage, a black covering across the floor and the grey firewall at the far back of the stage - nothing which could distract or fascinate the audience. Even the fine music, chosen with good taste by the director, can just be beard for a few seconds at the end of the performance when Hamlet's silhouette is lost in darkness in the background of the firewall. There are simply a few accordion chords, endlessly far away and sad, paraphrases of the whole Hamlet story.

It is characteristic of Medea and Hamlet that accountability to one's own conscience is in the foreground. This is much more important to the director and actress than the moment of revenge. The notoriously well-known material is therefore given an extremely personal note.


In Autumn 2003, the director of the Meyerhold Centre, Valery Fokin invited Theodoras Terzopoulos to do a new performance of The Persians by Aeschylus, The Greek director's production of the play had enthused Moscow audiences at the 1st International Chekhov Theatre Festival. This time, however, Terzopoulos was not to work with his own people but with the master pupils from the Meyerhold Centre. The well-known percussionist Vladimir Tarassov composed the music for the performance and the director himself created the set design. It was made entirely of: a chalk circle, nine pedestals which were reminiscent of the cothurnus and very ordinary shoes, white ones for the women and black ones for the men. These were scattered inside the circle like traces of modern civilisation on ancient ground.

From the beginning of the rehearsals in the Meyerhold Centre, Terzopoulos tried to reactivate atavisms in the actors and audience, in other words, senses which have long since atrophied with whose help people in antiquity experienced tragedy. He did not try to cover up or diminish the inexperience of the master pupils, nor did he cloak their unathletic bodies in costumes.

"The performance is not the most important part for me; the educational goal is. They have to understand how and in what way tragedy is different from drama, "Terzopoulos explained to the pupils as they began work on Тне Persians. "! have to say that even prominent Russian directors confuse tragedy with drama. The last person who understood tragedy in a profound way was Innokentij Annenskij and few other Russian poets at the beginning of the twentieth century. I don't want sentimentality from you; I want sighs that show your emotional inner world. You can save sentimentality for drawing room drama, if you want to deal with tragedy according to the requirements of psychological theatre, you will end up in hospital,"he said to the actors before every rehearsal. It was an attempt to overcome the limits of psychological theatre and to instruct them not to portray feelings but to act with their bodies and voices, not to express horror with screams but with breathing and whispers. To do this, the breathing had to come from the diaphragm.

Terzopoulos is not fond of elaborate or extensive decorations which detract from the tragedy itself. He created a magic field for his performance in which he drew a chalk circle on a rubber mat, inside which were nine pedestals. The Queen mother, Atossa, was the only figure who was allowed to climb on top of these pedestals.

Whilst sitting in the audience of the Meyerhold Centre, I witnessed the different attempts ofvarious actors to put the director's instruction into practice. Some understood immediately and allowed themselves to be swept away. This did not have to do with the different levels of English mastered by the participants, the rehearsals being in English. But by the end, Terzopoulos managed to achieve the result that every actor articulated his lines whilst his body vibrated with ecstatic energy, which leads almost involuntarily to the activation of the diaphragm and speaking from the stomach.

Natalja Woloschina, who was chosen by Terzopoulos for the role of Atossa, proved to have a very beautiful chest voice and precise body language. Terzopoulos had thought up a wonderful beginning for the performance; Attosa, who has been remained lifelessly in a corner, suddenly comes to life as the last members of the audience take their places. She then moves from the corner to the centre of the stage, as if swimming in the current of time and her dull laughter changes to tears over the defeated Persians. Under her majestic pose and moaning laughter, nine men whispering ominously suddenly begin to beat the ground and break out into female lamentations, some in Greek and some in Russian, and one UFA student even sings a Tartar cradle song - at that point, tears suddenly came to my eyes.

With a lofty pause, the Queen mother looks at her slaves with an enormous magnifying glass (the human eye is the universe), wipes the chalk circle away with the hem of her splendid garments in an animalistic rage and all at once, the dead King Xerxes appears as if from now/here - who knows where - out of the darkness. It seemed at that moment as if all the actors (and even the audience) wanted to leave for a new place, where entry might well not granted.

Translated from German
by Lucy Jones

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