Professor Tina Krontiris
Final Year Research Project, Lit.9-490
Fall Semester 2015-2016
15 February 2016
The Reception of Shakespeare in Greek Cinema and Television: Three Separate Attempts to Exemplify the Intercultural Practice of Adaptation
3. “An Athens Summer Dream (1999) as a comment on the theatrical process”
Although not a professional company of actors, the mechanicals, in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, reveal their process of rehearsing and staging a play. And it is this part of the plot that triggered the Greek independent filmmaker, Dimitri Athanitis, to write, direct, and produce a movie based on Shakespeare’s play, in 1999.
An Athens Summer Dream, and/or, Love Dreams and Other Complications1, is the story of an ambitious actor and director, Akis, and his wife, and also an actress, Marianna, who decide to stage Shakespeare’s Dream, in a theatre of Athens, in the 1990s.
The story starts with the audition of the actors, follows the newly formed company to their rehearsals and ends with the premiere performance of the play and the after party. However, as “life imitates art”, the actors of the play, in Athanitis’s film, find themselves living the roles that they have been assigned to play. The film narrates three parallel but interwoven stories: the story of Shakespeare’s play, the story of staging the play, and the story of the personal lives of the actors, which is imitating, for the most part, the story of the play.
While Athanitis keeps the multiple plot structure of the original play by Shakespeare, he aims to create a contemporary film that focuses on the theatrical process, and uses it as a theme that can expose the ephemeral nature of emotions. Athanitis positions at the centre of the film the company, the director, the actors, and their lives, and in this way, he creates a space where the audience can visit the realities of staging a play, as well as falling in and out of love.
Before I begin with the analysis, it is crucial to explain the limitations that the research on this film met with. Although the film is quite recent (only seventeen years old) it, appears that there is no audio-visual recording left of it. Moreover, apart from its participation in film festivals, the film had a limited distribution, as it was screened by one movie house in Athens, for a small period of time. This had as a result a limited press coverage of the film, which means that critical opinions on the film, were almost absent.
Thus, having no other alternative, I had to base my study on two written interviews I made with Dimitri Athanitis himself, concerning the movie, the working script of the film that the director sent me, and some still pictures I found from the movie. It is needless to say that the primary sources that were made available, constitute the analysis of the film itself impossible. Therefore, I will make clear that my analysis will be based mostly, if not entirely, on the script of the film.
The story involves eight main characters, Akis, the director, playing Oberon, Marianna, his wife and actor, playing Titania, Konstantina, the director’s assistant, and actor, who plays Puck, Lena, who plays Helena, Katerina, who plays Hermia, Kostas, who plays Demetrius, Leonidas, who plays Lysander, and Giannis, who plays Nick Bottom. A character that is additional, but important to Athanitis’s script is Teo, the producer.
As the company works on Shakespeare’s play, their lives become affected by the roles they play, and the limit between the reality of the stage and the reality of life becomes blurry. Katerina, Leonidas, Lena and Kostas, become in reality, Shakespeare’s lovers, whereas, Marianna (Titania) cheats on Akis (Oberon) with Giannis (Nick Bottom), and Konstantina (Puck) falls in love with Akis.
Shakespeare’s sub-plot of the “Mechanicals’ Play” is used in the script as the main structural device, establishing the focus of the film in the theatrical process.
The majority of the scenes are about the actors’ rehearsals of the play. The script covers a fan of situations and moods that surround the theatrical process. As they rehearse their lines the actors appear passionate, bored, troubled, tired, disappointed, angry, proud and sometimes absent-minded, about what they are doing.
The actors’ comprehension of the material, and the embodying presence that must be achieved, are often expressed as ideas in the script; the actors of the play must feel what their characters feel and, therefore, they eventually end up living what their characters live as well. In this way the theatrical process is established as a powerful and central crucible as it consumes the whole being of the actors and their real lives, and, consequently the story of the film itself.
While Athanitis omits the structural framing of the original play, which is the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta, the movie seems to be built around one important event, which is the opening performance of the play by the company. Interestingly enough, the characters of the producer Teo and the dresser, Eli, seem to substitute, in terms of structure, Theseus and Hippolyta.
Teo appears to be the highest source of power who dictates to Akis, the director and lead actor, the artistic choices that he has to make in order to agree to finance the production. Although Akis claims to be an independent artist, he very well knows his place and agrees with his producer’s terms. The character of Elli, the set designer, is a tool of Teo in order to patrol the work of Akis (scene no. 40, p. 31). In addition, the last scene of the movie, the after party, happens at Teo’s big mansion, drawing a parallel with the last act of Shakespeare’s play, which happens in Theseus’s palace, after the latter’s marriage with Hippolyta.
Therefore, the two characters seem to surround the play, as well as, the story of the film, in the same way that Theseus and Hippolyta, with their authority surround the action in the original play, and in this way it seems that the important and final event of the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta has been substituted by the production of the play.
The importance of the theatrical process for the structure of this movie is further enhanced by the character of Akis, the director of the play, who appears to be the central character of the film. The idea of the film, that is, the staging of the particular play is presented as Akis’s dream. Akis appears to be determined to direct the play and keeps for himself the role of Oberon, despite the obstacles that are thrown by the producer.
Through the figure of Akis, Athanitis shows his interest in the creative process that actors and directors go through. Throughout the rehearsals of the play Akis appears to be a passionate director that desires to instil his passion to the other actors as well (scene no. 22). Athanitis’s interest in the creative process of theatre is also proven by the improvisatory process that he and the actors of this film went through in order to create the script.
The script was written on the particular actors’ improvisations. What is more, in an interview for the film, Athanitis has confessed his interest in actors as a special kind of people. This pattern, existing not only in this film but also in his first feature film Addio Berlin (1994)2, almost constitutes self-reflectivity a key aspect of Athanitis’s cinematic style, especially in his early works; the filmmaker seems insistently interested in communicating the process of his work with the audience.
Therefore, the sub-plot of the Mechanicals’ Play, although it certainly does not reflect the theatrical practices of the professional companies of the time of Shakespeare, it gives Athanitis the opportunity to expand on his self-reflective style, presenting the theatrical process from the inside: the actors.
Another important aspect of the film is the story of Athanitis’s actors, through which, Shakespeare’s story of the lovers comes to life, and the mysterious nature of erotic attraction is displayed, this time, not as a magic spell but as a consequence of the neoteric traits of the characters. In Shakespeare’s play Puck throws a magical potion in order to change the heart of the lovers accordingly. As Greenblatt suggests, the unpredictability and the fluidity of attraction is presented through the symbol of the potion (p. 369).
In Athanitis there is no room for magic potions. The lovers this time living in 1999, are unapologetic of their sexual freedom. Specifically the character of Lena, who plays Helena on stage, allows us to sense the modern traits that the characters have. Although Lena is dependent on others, as she has no house of her own, at the same time, she appears to be emotionally independent and is used to changing partners, consuming rather than sharing her relationships with others. Of course, this frivolity is the exact opposite of who she plays on stage, Helena.
The unexplainable nature of attraction is also enhanced in the movie by the absence of conversation between the characters. In spite of the often confusing situations that the lovers find themselves in, the dialogues in the film do not allow the characters to explain themselves but rather to perform their function, and keep the action going. Therefore, the unapologetic presentation of emotions as ephemeral and unexplainable states of being, is part of the contemporary context of the actors.
In conclusion, Athanitis, based on his actors improvisations, and the story of Shakespeare’s Dream, creates a self-referential script about the makings of a theatre production. Expanding on the Mechanical’s play in the original Dream, Athanitis presents the theatrical process through the rehearsals, and the artistic and materialistic arguments that take place during the stage production of Shakespeare’s play.
Interested in the actors not only as artists but as people as well, the filmmaker follows closely the actors of the story as they immerse themselves in their roles as the lovers in Shakespeare’s play. In this way the difference between the reality of the stage and the reality of life becomes indistinguishable, for both the actors, and well as, for the audience of the film.
Through this interchange between art and real life the film revisits the theme of erotic attraction. The liberated and unapologetic way of living, that characterises not only the actors, but also the contemporary setting of the film, enhances the idea of the fluidity of emotions that Shakespeare’s magic potion has originally implied.
Therefore, although the actual film is not available, it is fair to claim that Shakespeare’s play, has an impact on the company of actors of the film that is equivalent to the impact that the particular midsummer night has on the characters of the play; and for Athanitis, it seems that this impact, full of mystery and surprises, is the core of the theatrical process, and the centre of Midsummer Night’s Dream
1 In Greek the filmmaker keeps the title of the original play “Όνειρο Καλοκαιρινής Νύχτας”.
2 The word “addio” means goodbye in Italian. The language of the movie is Greek. It is about a Greek director and his struggle to find a producer for his film.