Tragedy and Comedy

The arts thrive amid Greece’s economic crisis

01 July 2016
Vassilis Noulas’s play Odes to the Prince mounts a scathing critique of Greek politics.
courtesy ioannis kaminaris
Vassilis Noulas’s play Odes to the Prince mounts a scathing critique of Greek politics.
courtesy ioannis kaminaris

Tourists visiting Athens often marvel at the city’s oldest theatres—grand marble monuments that are an integral part of Greece’s ancient history. These tourists, however, would be unlikely to enter one of the city’s newest theatres: a cramped basement in a low-income, immigrant neighbourhood called Omonia.

But on a crisp Friday night in late January, the underground venue was at capacity. A few dozen audience members—mostly young, smartly dressed Greeks—sat on pillows and mismatched chairs, sipping wine from paper cups, to watch a play called Odes to the Prince. In a pivotal scene, the lead actor wore a mask of the Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras. Behind him, three other actors held photographs of Tsipras’s head, with parts of his face shaded out. The only lighting shone from two bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling, and the acrid smell of hand-rolled cigarettes filled the air.

The dusty basement has its own dramatic history, albeit a recent one. Before it became a theatre, it was a community gathering space for immigrants from Bangladesh, who would meet here to eat familiar food and share tips on adapting to European life. But in 2011, as the Greek economy tumbled due to a debt crisis exacerbated by the European Union’s strict central-banking regulations, the immigrants faced shrinking incomes. No longer able to afford the rent, they moved out. Soon after, Vassilis Noulas, a 41-year-old director with a beard and shaggy brown hair, repurposed the space into a theatre for his drama troupe. In October 2014, he began renting it at $120 a month. He kept the venue’s name—“Bangladesh”—as well as some of the broadsheet posters, covered in Bengali writing, that plastered the walls. He also hung a green, fluorescent-lighted sign that spells out “Bangladesh,” in Greek script, above the entrance.

Steven Borowiec is a journalist based in Seoul. He tweets as @steven_borowiec.

Keywords: European Union theatre government Greece arts economic crisis
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