Thiasos Parikia (Modern Greek Theatre)
Performances at Mytilinean House
26th May, 2019
Migrant communities in Australia may easily be lumped into groups under a “language-other-than-English-spoken-at-home” label. A convenient tag, but oh, so perforated with pitfalls when that tag is picked up for targeted marketing or used to make predictions in the behaviour of the whole. Once a community has been established for several generations and keeps accepting new-comers, different enclaves of perspectives coagulate into their own pride of otherness, while swathes of children from earlier established families assimilate. What’s left is less a homogenous group and more a fractal of divergent needs, opinions, politics and concerns.
For a playwright to address an issue with a long established migrant community s/he faces a problem in who s/he’s targeting? Who will the play resonate with and how will his/her voice be interpreted by the director and then accepted by the audience? Will the message be fresh and pertinent or hackneyed, passé, boring? This is the case with all new plays but when you target a community, you want your dart on board and close to the bull’s eye.
Theodore Patrikareas’ classic play, The Promised Woman, may appear to be an obvious choice for a revival but does his intent in the 1960s still have relevance today? Then, as now, there was a wave of people coming to Australia from Greece in the face of economic hardships. Australian society and Greek-Australian culture has moved on since then: can his play still speak to the migrant as it did then? And for those who lived the inconceivable norm his story depicts, how does his advice fare with hindsight?
The Promised Woman renders the lives of migrant men who came out here and worked hard but didn’t make the kind of money needed to return to their homeland soon enough. Wanting family life and companionship they wrote home. From Greece, women were sent who were often judged to have been left behind in the marriage stakes. A photo of their much younger, in some cases unrecognizable selves, were sent to men in Australia who sponsored and paid for their move here, such as in the botched match making of Antigone and Telly.
Telly lives in a boarding house in inner city Newtown, where his story and that of his peers unfolds. When Antigone arrives he rejects her off hand. Although still within the limits of childbearing age, he judges her too old. He has lost face with all those around him to whom he has shown the photo of a beautiful young woman. Antigone decides to stay in Australia, find a job and pay Telly back. She shows her mettle and kind spiritedness to the other boarders. When another suiter, Manolis, with a proven work ethic, ability to save and respectful appreciation of her, asks for her, she shies off.
This play was written in the 1960’s when the feminist movement had one of the most powerful messages to proclaim – women’s liberation. The play ends abruptly with this message resounding, however, the arc of the story seems incomplete. Manolis, the respectful suitor, is a loose end that women who came after those bra-burning legends of the 60s and 70s may have accepted, seeing in him the possibilities of a balanced relationship. Women with hindsight can see in the message the sacrifice of family over a career and guaranteed independence.
Director Thanasi Macrigiorgou, of Melbourne’s, Modern Greek Theatre (Thiasos Parikia) tries to mitigate the problematic ending while staying true to the original feminist message by adding an entr’acte. Here we see an aged Antigone silently remembering her ordeal with the aid of film reels and we are shown that at some point she must have started a family (and presumably married) for her grandchildren surround her playing their musical instruments.
Macrigiorgou believes in the relevance of the play and its power to speak to: the migrant who lived those untamed years; their children and grandchildren, who should come to empathise with their parent’s plight; and finally, recent Greek arrivals who he believes will find much in common with characters and their situation. But will they?
Watching this play was like looking into a sentimentalised past. What! What’s so sentimental about hardship? When it was written it would be applauded by an audience who could empathise. Today, the older generation, distanced by the travails that they have experienced afterwards, watch with a sense of nostalgia for a past they wear as a badge of honour. They endured. It made them. And they are no longer there battling. The community it depicts is no longer a supportive haven of shared experience. The community is no longer a guaranteed refuge in time of need. The recent migrant from Greece may face difficulty in finding a job, a spouse, and feel isolated, but the recent migrant won’t have the comfort of common experience with the Greek community here. We are a fractal, splintering off with different concerns, sometimes insular, sometimes fraught, but often oblivious to the need of the new migrant. Like the Australian community at large, we don’t have time and can’t necessarily relate.
Of course, somethings don’t change. There is always hardship. There is always migration. And where there exists patriarchal, agrarian societies there persists the idea that marriage can be brokered and arranged over distances, and women will be uprooted and sent to relative isolation in foreign countries as brides. The Promised Woman may speak more today to new migrant women from emerging migrant communities e.g., Bangladeshi, who are experiencing similar upheavals.
The performance by Thiasos Parikia was well received. The housekeeper, the counterpart of the comic maid role that figures in so many 20th Century Greek situation comedies, was carried off with show-stopping finesse by Marianthi Makariou. Faye Iliopoulou’s Antigone was courageous and sympathetic. Spiros Drosos’ Telly (the prospective groom) was so believable that he was booed at the curtain call.
The audience was an appreciative animal and curious to follow. They booed, they cheered, they reminisced. When Antigone waxed on about her intent and independence, she was applauded by the audience – the female portion, that is.
Having been well received in Melbourne over several months, the Sydney run was short but enthusiastically received. Celebrating 30 years, Thiasos Parikia, continues to delight its audiences. All the best to them!