The Pietà is a marble Renaissance sculpture by Michelangelo. The literal translation of the word is “mercy”, but the work is also known as “Deposition”. It is located in Vatican City, in the Basilica of St. Peter’s. With a certain strangeness for someone who has a 33-year-old son, it depicts the Virgin Mary at a young age, with the dead Christ sitting in her arms.
I asked Martha Bouziouri, director and actress of the show “Pietà”, which will be performed this week for the last few performances at the New Cosmos Theatre, how the title of the show came about.
“I have a lot of difficulty with titles,” he replied. “In Pietà I struggled a lot, until I activated collective brainstorming. And Pietà as an idea came from a man (laughs), and I said it was a very fitting name. We experience it semantically as a very significant, strong inversion, and parallelism together, of the archetype. It’s the ultimate image of the grief of a mother losing her child, her boy. Here we are talking about a woman losing her girl. And at the same time the Pietà is a work of art in which the Virgin Mary, holding the little Christ in her hands, is not suffering. She is depicted in a way that mourning does not correspond to this face of joy, of youth, so as a symbolism this also unlocked something for me at that moment and I said that it could be the title of our show.”
We carry the women who have gone before, the women who are no longer among us and the potentiality of the present and the future.
In the beginning was the seed
Before Nicole Angelakopoulou, Maria Moschouri and Elina Rizou, three of the other four actresses in the show, arrived at our table, I asked Martha what the original idea behind Pietà was.
“The idea for the show has been working in me as a flow for several years. I mean, the first seeds were planted after a performance I did at the Athens Festival in 2018, which was very, very oddly timed, which is to say I remember submitting the proposal at the end of 2017 for the 2018 season and when it was approved it was the first days we were discussing MeToo, but it was coming from America. The show that I had proposed and that we ended up doing was Amarinth. It was a gang rape case of an underage immigrant schoolgirl. So somehow a need had started in me to explore aspects of the gender dimension, but it hadn’t taken on a specific character. Fast forward, without being conscious yet, I found myself engaging in work that had this gendered element without having previously stated it to myself as a desire. That is, then I did a performance at the Municipal Theatre of Piraeus, an inverted Odyssey about the lives of sailors’ wives, somehow breaking down the stereotype of Penelope passively waiting, also touching on taboo issues in relation to desire, physicality, what it means ‘not having my partner with me’, not sleeping together, sex, infidelity, fidelity. Then I went over to Covid to France, and there I was studying an issue that seemed irrelevant to the region, the issue of terrorism. Terrorism equals male agency in gendered terms. And yet, through that research, I discovered a story of two women in Belgium, the mom of a victim of a terrorist attack and the mom of a boy who had joined ISIS and was a terrorist himself, who were connected by an incredible friendship. And this was to be my first documentary film, which is to say that last year I completed my first feature documentary and I got into these waters. And so last year, when I was in Belgium, I did all this journey that I’m describing to you and I felt like it was time to come back to this region. I say that and I mean that I didn’t enter Pietà as an artist, I didn’t even know if this trip was going anywhere. I didn’t even go in promising the mothers that we were going to do a performance, because I didn’t know if we were going to make it to the end. But it was also my own very strong need to process this area. It activated in me this journey to the performance my own experiences, my own experiences, my own way of standing up to events, to attitudes that violate my own vital space. I mean, I saw them again after years. We brought those experiences to the rehearsal as well. The show is experiential in that it deals with the lives of five women who are not among us, but it also has nuggets of our own lives, and we don’t show that, we don’t state that, we don’t have to say that, we know that and that’s enough. All of this is woven into a dramaturgy where one feels like one is following a story. You don’t wonder, that is, which mother is this now, which woman experienced what is happening now on stage. It doesn’t matter. Our intention in stepping on these painful narratives of the mothers was not to eliminate the girls, because it doesn’t matter who is Garifalia, Helen, Erato, but somehow to enlarge the size of the absence, to open the gap in the essence, in a way that semantically exploits what mothers say, ‘to feel that my girl has not been lost, this struggle is what I do because it gives me life and meaning to talk about my child, a girl-symbol, in a common struggle’. It’s so clear to me that. So, eliminating each name, and having it stated first and then moving on without it is like trying to do what the theatre is trying to do, which is to break that distance between the stage and the square, and to reverse a little bit the architecture, of the theatre, of society…”
A show about femicide
Approaching such a recent and politically, socially and emotionally charged phenomenon theatrically is no easy task.
“The show is not a memorial,” Martha explains to me. “Of course it goes through the paths of loss and mourning, but because theatre has the language to activate other emotions, other types of reflection, it also manages to pass on stakes that go beyond personal experience and touch on all these discussions we have about how the patriarchal residue itself, from a family background for example, educates the little girl differently, the little boy differently. The nuclear responsibility of the family, of education, of a whole society. Then all this talk about victim blaming, about the traumatic process of trials, about the absence of the state in terms of prevention, in terms of support, all of this comes through in the show because there is this vital space that mothers themselves have opened up. The material emerged through the ferment between us.”
For Martha, the approach to the style of the show was quite clear from the beginning: ‘My own route touches on very specific socio-political issues, but not in accusatory terms, because I don’t believe in theatre-complaint, that is, in this didacticism of ‘I’m wagging a finger at you’. There is a theatre of the real, as we call it, or documentary theatre, where in the term alone the signifier that the spectator understands is that he is going to see hard evidence on stage, he is going to see moments of violence. It’s like you’re going to see true crime. And because we’ve got this streaming reality a little bit into our lives with the true crime genre and you’re consuming it by the pound, so when viewers come and travel with us [expecting to see something like this], I don’t think they’re ready for what they’re seeing and it’s very nice to be proven wrong. Our choice is clearly experiential and human-centered. It’s the political through the human.”
You struggle for clarity on stage, not to get your personal world into it either, because you may have an experience, but you try to put it aside and say you have to resist it.
A fresh, freshly slaughtered, three and sixty a kilo
Like every case of police interest in Greece, femicides are commercialized at the first opportunity. The media offer us a live keyhole to cannibalize the “tragic figures” of the relatives, and to see the past of the murdered, sometimes even character assassination, in frames.
I notice that in Pietà’s performances the audience is moved, they cry. Martha readily offers her own explanation: ‘It is very important that at the moment Art is dealing with this area [of femicide and gender violence], and at the same time there is always this danger of commercialisation, of appealing to emotion, of didacticism. It happens that the audience cries during the performance, it provokes this, but without this being an end in itself. And it’s very important that there is this telling difference. I really wished before we touched Pieta on stage that it would pass [to the audience] in this way, rather than in the way of appealing to emotion, and we are happy to experience that this is how the audience receives it. The show is from beginning to end a journey that takes you in, you don’t watch it from the outside, you get into this channel and go all the way to the end, but not exhausting your involvement in traumatic terms. There is a redemptive and a cathartic effect. It doesn’t end with the tombstone of the end, the physical end. I think this emotion is activated in terms of gendered tenderness, at least that’s how I receive it. When the show ends and we meet offstage, without having said it again, it’s like a kind of mutual conspiracy all over again. There’s a place of mutual care.”
Having Nicole in our company now, and in order to get away from the heavy subject matter that Martha and I were discussing, I ask her if and how she prepares herself as an actor physically and emotionally for the performance.
“Technically, in how I prepare my body and my voice, I don’t do things differently than usual,” Nicole explains. “On stage, of course, you are preparing for something else, compared to the documentary genre, that’s my experience from both of my documentary projects. In no way are you dealing with a role [in documentary theatre], the boundaries are a bit lost, there’s no fiction, you’re dealing with facts and you have to convey as faithfully as you can a real event on stage as it happened, with the details you have, whether the text mentions them or not, but with a distance, and that shocks me every time in this kind of theatre, with a distance from your feeling. That is, you’re always resisting the emotion, which in fiction might not happen as easily to me, or instead I might drive it and take it into that channel myself, because there I will have an identification in a personal point, a personal experience, with the role. Here you’re always in a resistance with what’s happening to you scenically at that moment, so that the message can get down as clear and as clear as possible. You’re fighting for clarity on stage, not to get your personal world into it either, because you may have an experience, but you’re trying to put it aside and say you have to resist it.”
The material for the performance was provided by the mothers themselves. Through their own stories and narratives, personal objects and confessions, Pietà was able to take shape. I ask Martha how the first contact with them happened.
“I started with a lot of second thoughts and reservations when I thought maybe this is the way, through the moms, not yet knowing which moms, I didn’t sit down to do research and choose five stories. I started completely exploratory and for myself before the whole thing took shape, before I involved other creative contributors who ended up being contributors all together. I still remember the first day, because the first mum was Alexandra Makou, Garyfalia’s mum, is what something clicked. I was looking for, doing archive research, to feel who these women were, and I stumbled upon a conversation, I heard Alexandra and immediately looked her up on social and messaged her. I told her I’d like to meet her, she responded positively, and after a few days I got in the car and drove to Corinth to find her. And in that one-hour car ride, which was pivotal, I was saying ‘it will go a long way to show if what I’m thinking about has any hope’. And I was wondering how she would be and what state I would find her in, what I would say to her. And when that three-hour coffee was over I was almost certain that maybe this road had been very meaningful, because, you know, some things you don’t rationalize, it was a meeting that from beginning to end, every word she said, her attitude gave me confidence that we were going to make something that would be good for both sides. So as we close the coffee, and we’ve taken her words verbatim in the show, ‘It is my quest to talk about my child, because my child is light, and my mission from here on out is to communicate to the world this light that my child has left me, and the mission that she has bequeathed to me, because if she had been here and continued her journey on this planet, she would have done great things. She did not have time and I through my own meteorology, not through her science, must continue this mission. So my mission for me is to get into this race to help other girls not get lost.'”
Then Alexandra Makou introduced her to Eleni Kremastioti, Erato’s mother, and somehow, like a domino effect, one mother led her to another.
“And I suddenly realized that they very organically sought each other out, because no one can understand what they’re going through but another mom,” Martha continues, circling back to the beginning of our conversation. “There is this peculiarity that these mothers are experiencing the most extreme trauma and at the same time their trauma is collective, and that has a good and a bad shade. The bad is how the dead can be cannibalized post mortem, all the victim blaming that follows, the painful process of the trials all this publicity. There is this dimension of the social, the public, and there is also the collective mourning in the sense of solidarity and mutual care, which is somewhat comforting. That is, the experience of these mothers, without at all equating anything to do with their trauma, but in a way it has been passed on to us, I mean as women. That is, we carry it, we carry the women who have gone before, the women who are no longer among us, and the potentiality of the present and the future. This potentiality is scary on the one hand, you know, this insecurity, this fear, this consumability, and at the same time you say it has an empowering character, because you can’t just leave it there and keep counting, saying ‘here’s a next one that wasn’t me’. So, somehow there’s a big debate on these two boundaries between public and private.”
After the collection of the material, the next step was the fermentation, the processing, the creation of the artistic team that could carry out this journey. The material had to be communicated to the team, and the final result had to reach the inspirers.
Martha explains: “And when this first circle was created and closed, it was the moment to share from within this wealth, these windows that these mothers had opened for me. So when we formed our creative group I slowly began to graft the rehearsal with my experience, what we said, what we talked about, what each mom was like, until slowly we came to meet all together and got to know each other as the larger group. And it was a very nice moment because we were able to bring the moms to Athens, to be all together and have that first very important meeting, so that we both have a common emotional understanding of what we’re going to do here.”
Nicole additionally describes the anxiety about how mothers will feel about the final result. “We were all very anxious about how they would feel, because it’s very different for Martha to be in communication with them, and at some point they meet the actors and it becomes very clear that this thing is on its way and it’s going to be a performance. But it’s incredible that once again it’s these women who, in their own strength, and in their own way of dealing with this whole situation, the loss, they’re the ones who make you feel okay. As soon as we walked into the room all four pairs of eyes read them and said ‘girls, relax, we’re moms, we’re women, this happened to us, let’s sit down and talk about it’.”
It is urgent and necessary for us to speak out about femicide, with our bodies and our voices.
Maria and Elina, who join the conversation later, vividly convey how emotionally unpredictable the meeting with the mothers was, both literally and figuratively.
“From very early on there was a safe space in the rehearsals”, says Maria. “I think whatever preparation we had done, which I think each of us had done, and we did together, meeting the moms found us somewhat unprepared, but I think it wouldn’t have happened any other way. I don’t mean when we met them, but when the result came on stage and the moms came to watch. I think that was one thing that each one experienced very intensely and I don’t know if I was adequately prepared. I expected it to happen, it didn’t all go as planned and it wasn’t going to happen with a thing that is alive and has the power that we think the show has. Mums have always said ‘we’ve lived much worse’ and it’s true, they have lived much worse, but whatever we say, that power of Art, that something being performed on stage is a moment that opens up a space that neither they were fully prepared for, nor we were. As difficult as it is, it’s also therapeutic.”
Meeting the mothers was also a realization of how one-dimensionally we perceive them through the media lens. We have only used them to mourn, to the extent that we cannot imagine them outside their mourning. Their living presence makes us uneasy; we don’t know how to treat them or how to talk to them. As Martha very aptly observes, for them “every identity other than that of the mother who has lost her daughter has been erased”.
Elina’s experience is similar. “For the meeting with the mothers I was confronted with the stereotypes that I was unfortunately reflexive about,” she explains. “And before I met them, and when I met them, and I saw how these women one by one were tearing me down. That is, they themselves move our thinking, which unfortunately has ‘how do you live after this’ in it, that this is all there is. That is to say, I too first disliked them and saw in them only her daughter, death. Interacting with them moved us to something deeper and more comprehensive. It’s how you go on with life afterwards, how you manage to communicate that to the world, how you manage to be what you were before with it, and how a next day dawns that has to metabolize what has happened into something that doesn’t replicate all the reasons why it happened.”
Unfortunately, the message of “Pietà” is always relevant and timeless.
In place of the five stories there could have been five more, and five more, and the message, perhaps the dramaturgy itself, would have remained unchanged. Nicole explains it much more simply: “Even if we picked twenty-year-old cases, if we picked it up from Kiki Kusoglou, for me, the show would have no difference in terms of message and goal. And that’s clear to me.”
Nevertheless, I am extremely happy that this show exists. It is here to remind us, to remind us, to teach us, to give us space, to take care of us.
“It’s urgent and we need to talk about femicide, with our bodies and our voices,” Martha says as our coffee ends. “For someone else who lands in this space, they will obviously take it in as new and very fresh, as a fashion possibly, and maybe defensively. Because you expect the resistance. But unfortunately there is a familiarity with trauma.”
The performance “Pietà” is playing at the Theatre of New Cosmos for a few more performances.
They play: Nikolitsa Angelakopoulou, Maria Moschouri, Martha Bouziouri, Marianthi Pantelopoulou, Elina Rizou
Online ticket purchase: more.com.
Following a kind donation by the cast of the show, all Womanlanders are entitled to a reduced ticket for the show (15 instead of 18 euros), by booking by phone at the theatre box office on weekdays from 17.00 to 21.00 and on weekends from 10.00 to 14.00 and 17.00 to 21.00.
You can participate in the draw that ends on Wednesday 15/11 and win a double invitation for the performance on Saturday 18 November or Sunday 19 November.
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