In ancient Sicily, food was as central to everyday life as it is now. We know plenty about their cuisine thanks to the detailed references that abound in Greek comedies, such as those of Aristophanes, who once cooked up a 180-letter word to describe one particularly complex dish. Anyone doing a cooking course here would do well to add a theatre trip to their timetable.
Going to a performance in Syracuse’s Greek amphitheatre today is about the closest we can get to time travel. Nearly 2500 years ago, ordinary citizens were queueing up just like us, looking for their ticket’s row letter and seat number, and settling down in the evening sun amid the excited pre-performance chatter to enjoy the latest tragedy from Euripides or Aeschylus, or biting political satire by Aristophanes.
The teatro greco di Siracusa is one of the best surviving examples of an ancient outdoor theatre. Diehard theatre fans say the open-air productions here are as good as anywhere in Italy, indeed the world, even rivalling Ephesus. Summer 2012 offers three productions of ancient classics, performed in Italian on various dates through May and June.
Aeschylus’s Prometheus (in Italian, Prometeo, di Eschilo) is a typically involved tale of gods, mortals, jealousy and punishment. The Titan Prometheus, portrayed as something of a shyster, has been dealing in stolen goods: namely, fire, which he has passed from gods to humans, thwarting Zeus’s plans to destroy mankind. In revenge, he is chained to a rock – where he stays for most of the play, making the action easy to follow.
This being a tragedy, things end up even worse for the unfortunate Prometheus. Scholars query whether Aeschylus really was the author – his playwright son Euphorion may have been involved – but the appearance of scenes from it on ancient vases, and a sly reference to it in Aristophanes’s The Birds, suggest it was a big hit of its day.
Euripides didn’t live to see the success of his Bacchae (Baccanti, di Euripide) – it was premiered after his death, following a long and successful career: he wrote 90-odd plays, three of which (Bacchae being the last) won a prize in the City Dionysia, the ancient Greek equivalent of an Oscar.
The play portrays – often in gruesome detail – the story of King Pentheus of Thebes and his mother, and their punishment by the god Dionysus (Pentheus's cousin) for refusing to worship him. Among many modern takes on this tale of politics, religion and power, Joe Orton’s 1966 Erpingham Camp relocated the action to a Butlin’s style holiday village where revolution is afoot.
For comic relief, Aristophanes’s joke-filled satires still have audiences hooting with laughter (if the translator is adept enough to convey the dazzling puns, wordplay and topical references). The Birds (Uccelli, di Aristofane) – only a second-prize winner at the Dionysia! – is the work that gave us ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’. Pisthetaerus, a middle-aged Athenian bloke fed up with bickering politicians, persuades the birds to set up their own republic, forming a control zone in the sky between humans and gods.
The gags – and bird impressions – come as thick and lavishly as Sicilian ice cream. This being a comedy, there’s a happy ending, with the gods and politicians reluctantly brought into line, and theordinary citizen ending up on top. If only it could always be like that...