August 23, 2013
I have already written a few days ago about the performance by Evi Stamatiou at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The performance is entitled Caryatid Unplugged & focuses on the return of the Parthenon Sculptures (also known as the Elgin Marbles) in the British Museum to Greece, although, as you will discover, it is about far more than just this.
She is far from the first person to be captivated by the sole caryatid that sits alone in the British Museum, far from her sisters, with other notable examples being Dennis Menos’s book written from her perspective & Mary Philips who performed a protest outside the British Museum dressed as a Caryatid.
I had a chance to talk with Evi about Caryatid Unplugged and to ask her a bit more about her thoughts on the Marbles & what inspired her to develop this show:
Elginism: Hi Evi, first of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself & your background.
Evi Stamatiou: I was born in 1980 in Ioannina, Epirus. I moved to Athens for studies in 1999 and then to London in 2010. My parents were both born in Ioannina, second generation of Greek expats returning to Greece after the Second World War from France, Russia and Northern Epirus. My father, Alexandros highly appreciated the arts and Ancient Greek Culture. When he died in 2001, I decided to change career and devote myself to theatre, as a way to keep a connection with him.
I am now based in London and work as a theatre practitioner and educator. I have ten years of international professional experience. In 2010 I established in Athens Upopirates Theatre Company and won a distinction at Off Off At Colonus Theatre Festival for my performance Thinking About Jean Genet’s Tightrope. Since 2011 I am a HE Lecturer and Course Coordinator at Wessex Academy of Performing Arts in England. I am also a member of Lincoln Centre Theatre Directors Lab.
Elginism: Have you always had strong views on the Parthenon Marbles, or is it a more recent thing?
Evi Stamatiou: I have always loved Ancient Greek Art and Architecture, with a particular passion for Ancient Greek Theatres. My interest in the Parthenon Marbles grew stronger after the construction of the New Acropolis Museum and my move to London.
Elginism: I think few that have seen the new museum do not end up feeling more strongly about the issue afterwards. What inspired you to create a performance focused on the Parthenon Marbles?
Evi Stamatiou: While studying for an MA in Arts Policy and Management, I developed a great interest in sculpture curating. In the process of visiting various sculptures in galleries around the world, I realised that the Caryatid and the other column of the Erectheion are particularly misunderstood as architectural elements. She made no sense, being detached from the temple that gave her meaning. So I started thinking of the French philosopher’s Bourdieu saying; “To be fully understood, works of art must be reinserted in the system of social (I say architectural) relations which sustains them”. When the work of art comes to life, there is no way to detach it from its original culture in terms of language and history. The cultural capital of the Caryatid makes her unbearable aesthetically for the artificial world of the British Museum. An artificial world that tries to place all these cultures and histories in one building. An industrial city like London, after the industrial revolution obliged all classes to co-exist. And as the economy started becoming global, those classes enriched themselves with other sub-classes of foreigners- cosmopolitans or immigrants. And this is how I got to the issue of immigration in the performance. And saw the Caryatid as the symbol of the Greek Identity Crisis as formed after the economic crisis and as seen in the thousands of young Greek people that have to leave Greece.
Elginism: Interesting, so although it is a performance about a historic work of art, it is also very current, and anchored firmly in the present day. Was there a reason for your choosing the Caryatid rather than one of the other sculptures?
Evi Stamatiou: I chose the Caryatid because it is an isolated female figure and immediately found a relation to immigration and human trafficking. Victims of human trafficking move to other countries hoping for a better life, as the Caryatid was moved to the British Museum in order to be rescued. Later they become exploited. The Caryatid also became the metaphor of the Greek immigrant to London. During the three years that followed the Greek financial crisis I met many young Greek people who unwillingly moved to the UK or got “trapped” into the country because of unemployment in Greece. Most often those people are highly qualified, being part of the “brain drain” Greece is suffering from at the moment. From my perspective this new wave of Greek immigrants in the UK is the set of columns that are required to support Greece, if seen as an architectural structure. Within the international capitalistic environment of London they lose their Greek identity and Greece, by losing them, loses its identity and structural support as well.
Elginism: So it is all very much routed in the understanding of the built architectural forms of ancient Greece (something that appeals greatly to me as an architect). Did you have the whole idea for the performance straight away, or has the idea evolved significantly to reach the finished performance
Evi Stamatiou: The idea evolved gradually. It started with the intention to bring the Caryatid to life and listen to her story, but it was hard to isolate it from its social and historical background. So the need for the other characters to be part of her story emerged. In the performance I am playing seven characters; the narrator, Rita (a Greek immigrant), John (a UK border officer), the Caryatid, Lord Elgin, a translator and Melina Mercouri. David Cameron appears as a voice over. I was determined to have a comedy format from the beginning of the creative process. My inspiration has been Aristophanes’ caricature comedy and the European burlesque cabaret comedy, as formed during the economic crisis that followed the First World War. I am immediately addressing the audience. The funny part is that during the performance, fireworks go off. This happens exactly at the point that Melina Mercouri, the goddess ex machine of the story arrives. Amazing coincidence.
Elginism: As someone from a Greek background, people would say that of course you would be expected to support the return of the Marbles. Do you believe that it is an issue that should be of interest to non-Greeks too, and if so, why?
Evi Stamatiou: That was exactly the challenge about this performance. I followed the African-American playwright’s George Wolf advice “If you want the audience to stay for the lecture, first you have to invite them to the party”. These are also the means Aristophanes’ used to comment on his contemporary political issues. So the aim of the performance seems to be primarily amusing. As a narrator of the story I am not taking sides and all my characters are equally developed as clowns. In the end I let the audience decide whether Rita (the immigrant) or the Caryatid should both go back to Greece or should both stay in the UK. I keep a notebook outside the performance space and many of them write what they believe. It is very interesting how many British people favour the return of the Caryatid back to Greece. I don’t take a position openly. This is how the whole process started for me. I stood opposite the Caryatid in the British Museum and asked her; “So, if you were to decide whether to return to Greece or not, what would you reply?” I am sure if she could speak, her reply would have been much more extended than a “yes” or “no”. I suppose now I am talking from the perspective of the Greeks of my generation, who within the economic crisis have had many controversial thoughts about Greece and the Greek identity.
Elginism: It is interesting that you encourage the audience to decide what they think. Has their response to the performance generally been supportive of returning the sculptures?
Evi Stamatiou: Yes definitely. Especially people from Mediterranean countries and older Scottish people. My point, though, is more about raising awareness of the issue.
Elginism: Do you feel that by publicising the cause you are helping to change people’s opinions?
Evi Stamatiou: I feel the political responsibility as a citizen of the planet and as an artist to serve Aristophanes’ cause. As Sommerstein quotes Dichaearchus in the introduction of his translation of The Frogs, Aristophanes was awarded an honour state decree as “he advised the Athenians to live in concord with one another and restore the rights to the disfranchised”. I want the audience not to be lectured, but get in the process of thinking. Thinking that when injustice and exploitation happens anywhere on the planet, it is every individual’s responsibility to at least think about it.
Elginism: I understand that you did some promotional photos at Edinburgh College of Art, but that there were then problems when they saw how they were being used, as they didn’t want to appear as being supportive of the return of the marbles. Do you feel that their concerns are valid?
Evi Stamatiou: I was very surprised with such reaction, as I feel very confident to speak freely in the UK. I do not believe that the pictures were used in any particular way to serve any particular cause. My intention has been from the beginning a political performance, which has the duty to be provocative. I understand that the “commercial identity” of Edinburgh festival doesn’t leave much space for political theatre. Furthermore, Caryatid Unplugged is not only about the marbles. It is about the Greek identity. Talks about Greece, about which people haven’t heard much lately… The latest thing they remember about Greece is the national broadcasting closing down. And then nothing. Of course they wouldn’t. Because there is no Greek national broadcasting. The Greek identity is strong however and survives all over the world. Maybe Greece is poor in economic capital, but at the same time it is particularly rich in academic and cultural capital.
Elginism: Do you think that the Marbles will ever return & if so, what will it take to make this happen?
Evi Stamatiou: I met a young charming British man whose brother works for the BBC at the Edinburgh book festival. He told me “We will return the marbles to Greece with our own will. When Greece stops asking for them.” I felt almost bullied by his reply. But then… Maybe they are already trying to find a way how to return the Parthenon marbles because of their architectural function and the fact that this distinguishes them from all the rest of the art works in major museums around the world. There is a strong debate in the museums world about that. If all art work goes back to its country of origin, what will happen to the museums? The Acropolis Museum, though, make makes this without doubt a unique case.
Elginism: Do you have any plans for repeating the Caryatid Unplugged performance elsewhere?
Evi Stamatiou: My plan is to rework Caryatid Unplugged after the feedback I receive at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and tour it around the world. I have already been contacting major festivals and there is remarkable interest. I have also had much support from Greek people in the audience. I believe Greek audiences should see the performance as well, because it is a controversial commentary on Greek politics as well and especially the way that Greeks perceive immigrants.
Elginism: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me. I hope the rest of your shows at the Edinburgh Festival go well and look forward to maybe seeing Caryatid Unplugged elsewhere in the future.
Caryatid Unplugged is showing for another three days, so if you’re in the Edinburgh area, make sure yo get some tickets for it & show you support for the return of the Marbles and for Evi’s show.
For more information about the multi-talented Evi Stamatiou and her show, please visit her website at: www.evistamatiou.com.
- Evi Stamatiou as Caryatid Unplugged at the Edinburgh festival : August 20, 2013
- Influence – a play about the arrival of the Elgin Marbles in Britain : February 2, 2011
- Losing Marbles – Or what could happen on the return journey of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece : December 10, 2009
- Q&A with David Hill followed Parthenon Marbles film screening : November 11, 2014
- First Caryatid moves to the New Acropolis Museum : December 12, 2007
- The importance of repatriation for museums : November 28, 2011
- The ethics of repatriating artefacts : May 26, 2007
- The politics of global museums : August 4, 2005