The Human in Crisis: Kokkinou’s Cyborgean Reading of Thucydides
The past thirty years, the theatrical space has been considerably reconfigured with the emergence of new technologies that severely question the limits between the real and the artificial, the virtual and the physical, the corporeal and the dematerialised. The insertion and implementation of cyborgean theatrical practices on stage transform the dynamics of embodied performance, reinforce intermediality and incite us to rethink the dramatic and the theatrical text, the human as essence and concept. Although there are several practitioners of cyborg theatre (e.g. Cathy Weis, Elizabeth LeCompte and Katie Mitchell), few are the experimental technologically-driven theatrical renderings of ancient Greek dramas in particular or classical texts in general (e.g. Katie Mitchell’s Oresteia (1999) or Caridad Svich’s Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell that Was Once Her Heart? (2004)).
Another rare cyborgean rendering of a classical text is the theatrical reworking of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War entitled initially I, Thucydides, son of Oloros from the deme of Halimous and then named I, Thucydides, an Athenian (28th March 2014 to 26th April 2015). In this dramaturgical collaboration with Nikos Flessas, Anna Kokkinou is both the director and the actress who performs the dramatised recitation of a selection of Thucydides’ elaborate prose in N. M. Skouteropoulos’ Modern Greek translation. Throughout the performance, Kokkinou in black leather uniform, with cheek prosthetics which accentuate the fierceness of a dim face with short red hair, remains constantly still – seated on a technologically elaborate wheelchair with attached mechanical wings especially designed for the performance by D. Korre. On the wheelchair there are adjusted one textbook and a laptop which, together with the small worn microphones, allow for a spectacular alteration of vocal tones and styles for the theatrical rendering of Thucydides’ rich and complex speech to be possible. Neither technological component is ever detached from this embodied network of interrelated informational nodes which give voice to Thucydides’ prose. On the contrary, throughout the performance the actress together with these heterogeneous devices, organic and inorganic pieces, constitutes an entity which moves either abruptly or fiercely, slowly or intensely, backwards, forwards and sidewards, articulating a humanly produced or machine-generated / mediated multiplicity of voices which sheds new light on Thucydides’ dense narrative.
Talking about her relation with technology on stage, Kokkinou states that this cyborgean skeue functions for her as a type of mask which facilitates the representational potentialities of Thucydides’ work. In interviews, the actress and director has stated that she felt personally connected with Thucydides’ work and that she wanted to transfer this interconnectedness with the text on stage so as to be further impregnated and challenged through the interchangeable feedback circuits between actor and spectators. It is also quite possible that the basic machinery component of the skeue, the mechanic wheelchair, constitutes an implicit reference to a humanity both disabled and empowered.
The theatrical reworking of The History of the Peloponnesian War starts dialogically – as more or less anticipated because of the performative medium – with the famous episode of book 5, the dialogue between Athenians and Melians, which perpetuates the purposeful – from the ancient author’s point of view – timelessness of a historic account and is highly resonant with the current sociopolitical situation. The centred-on–the-right–of-the-might debate which evolves around arguments such as “to you the gain will be that by submission you will avert the worst” (5.93) becomes effectively represented through different technologically reproduced voices in relation to movement and light choices. After a scenic representation of the argumentation on the physiology of power which stresses the dialogic qualities of Thucydides’ narrative, the theatrical rendering continues with the role of the narrator and his programmatic statements on the role of the historical account. After a few scenes, the pathology of the war with the distortion of the semantic scope of the words is represented in between the scenes of the beginning and ending of the civil war in Kerkyra. In the second act, Pericles’ funeral oration figures prominently while quite elaborate is the onstage representation of another crisis, the devastating plague which is dramatised with a shrieking deformed technologically-mediated voice haunting the dimly- and yellow-lit surroundings. The utter destruction at Sicily towards the end of the performance is another climactic event of both Thucydides’ work and Kokkinou’s theatrical rendering. Red lights dominate the stage, conflicting voices articulate different accounts of the situation since some perceive the events as victory and others as failure while the fear for the future is present. Succumbing to the survival instinct soldiers are recounted to drink the blood of their dead or injured fellows in the red-coloured river of a dystopic landscape. The theatrical version of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War ends with a scene entitled in the programme notes as catharsis, a moment when conflicting feelings are negotiated for the audience to move beyond the multi-sensorily experienced strife.
All in all, diverse manifestations of a multifaceted crisis on (and off) stage make urgent the need for a technologically-mediated retelling of Thucydides’ version of history. Thus, the human crisis in the contemporary sociopolitical realm engages in dialogue with a φύσει– and νόμωι-driven human crisis of the past and they are both instantiated, reconfigured and readdressed in the theatrical performance space, where the bio, cultural and technological layers of the human as essence and concept are multi-directionally interrupted, contested and ceaselessly re-invented and re-informed.
I would like to thank colleague Alexandros Velaoras for his suggestion that Kokkinou’s dramatised recitation of Thucydides’ text might be indicative and reminiscent of the early history of transmission of the historical work to the public (cf. Heinz-Günther Nesselrath (ed.), Εισαγωγή στην αρχαιογνωσία Α’: Αρχαία Ελλάδα [Einleitung in die griechische Philologie], trans. I. Anastasiou et al., Papadimas 2005, p. 11).
Kuppers, Petra, Studying Disability Arts and Culture: An Introduction, Palgrave Macmillan 2014.
Parker-Starbuck, Jennifer, Cyborg Theatre: Corporeal/Technological Intersections in Multimedia Performance, Palgrave Macmillan 2011.
Rehm, Rush, Radical Theatre: Greek Tragedy in the Modern World, Bloomsbury 2014.
For those interested in classics and technology outside the theatrical realm see Brett M. Rogers and Benjamin Eldon Stevens, Classical Tradition in Science Fiction, OUP 2015.
For reviews and interviews on Anna Kokkinou’s I, Thucydides, an Athenian visit our entry in Jocasta here.
Professor Oliver Taplin on intermediality in Katie Mitchell’s Oresteia 1999 here.
Director Katie Mitchell on multimedia productions here.
Dr Pantelis Michelakis on Tragedy and the Machine here.