13 July 2007 –Val and I took the bus from Madrid to Mérida to see Fedra, yet another adaptation of the twisted, tragic Greek love story about a woman (Fedra) who madly adores her stepson, Hippolytus (Fran Perea), an unrequited love, the outcome of which dooms Hippolytus to death. Playwright: Juan Mayorga. Director: José Carlos Plaza. Ana Belén, a truly talented singing star born in Madrid, plays the sexy, unhinged Fedra with adroit skill.
The spectacle of a modern production in an ancient Roman theatre was one of the highlights of my UNO playwriting residency this summer. (the other: the reading of my play, Graffiti, at Chaminade in Madrid). Even sitting on sharp rocks in the top row of slave seats didn’t bother too much, especially since we’d been warned and had come prepared with seat cushions. (Me & Val)
Agrippa built this Teatro Romano in 18 B.C.E.. Mérida was founded as a Roman outpost circa 25 B.C.E.; commissioned by the Emperor Augustus from whom the name of the city, Emérita Augusta, was taken.
Except for the ice in the drinks at the bar, the venue does not offer much 21st century luxury. The show started at 11pm—to avoid the heat. The summer heat in Spain immobilized my body, a draining, dry, insidious heat. Just to keep moving, I was forced, at times, to drink copious amounts of refreshing tinto de verano, a mixture of red wine, and something like 7-up with the all-important ice.
Since I am familiar with Euripides’s story (428 BC) about the lustful Phaedra titled, Hippolytus, I was able to follow along with the plot, all in Spanish. Through the ages the story has been retold by Seneca, Racine, and the bilbaíno, Unamuno. But this version, premiered at the Classical Theater Festival of Merida, was obviously written for Belén—long, longggg monologues. In truth, the other main characters had their time in the spot, but Belén owned center stage. However, in conversing with an educated male of Mexican/American heritage, I was impressed with his confession, “the performance brought tears to my eyes.” Belén’s numerous, long soliloquies didn’t ruin the drama for him.
Since Mayorga won the National Theater Award last month for Fedra, and received 30,000 euros from the Ministry of Culture, the play, and most definitely Belén struck a chord in the hearts of many. But even Mayorga admitted, “It has been said that I have written this work for Ana Belén, […], but it is not true.” The “author” doth protest too much.
Regardless, the production and set stunned me with the extraordinary mix of ancient and modern. A large red rectangular (or trapezoid?) shaped backdrop was placed upstage dwarfing the actors and used as a prop from time to time, to lean on, crouch next to, and so on, and a diagonal line cut into it illuminated with a laser light during intense moments.
The stage lights were strategically placed to highlight the various headless statues and half-ruined columns, and the excellent surround music track of eerie voices, coupled with occasional fog, added depth to the sword fight and tragic end. Bravo!!! The crowd wildly applauded during curtain call and rewarded the cast with a vibrant standing ovation–a welcomed event for me after sitting two hours on rocks (cushion notwithstanding). The pageantry of the event overwhelmingly carried the night.
The theatre seats about 6000 and the adjacent amphitheatre could have held 15,000 on a good day in the province of Augusta Emerita. Other productions at the 2007 festival: The Persas, Lisístrata, Adiós, Brother Cruel, Andrómaca, The Banquet of Orfeo, The Troyanas, Metamorphoses, , Orestíada, Antígona, Orión, & Electra.
The next day Val and I toured the relic of an amphitheatre adjacent to the theatre, where many gladiators and animals met their bloody death to entertain the local population; obviously one, if not the ancestral origin of the bullfight staged in Spain today.