Kraounakis and Speira Speira: a flying visit from Athens

Reporter: Howard Loxton

Dateline: 22nd January, 2017

When did you last see a visiting overseas theatre company apart from opera and ballet? You can catch one occasionally at the Barbican or the Young Vic and both the RSC and the Globe has hosted foreign Shakespeare productions but we see far too little overseas theatre.

Though there are plenty of British revivals of ancient Greek plays, when did we last see any modern Greek work? Greek National Theatre director Anastasia Revi’s British-based Theatre Lab company (who shortly revives its Salome) has done some new Greek plays in translation and Cyprus company Theatre Ena contributes to Croydon Warehouse’s International Writing Festival but there has been nothing direct from Greece except for a one-off performance of a detective play (and that a translation into Greek) and a brief visit in spring nearly four years ago by Athens company Speira Speira.

Speira Speira’s show Aristophanes Now was a lively, life-enhancing revue show that drew on the ancient dramatist’s comedies to take a contemporary look at similar subjects. That company is led by prolific composer, performer and director Stamatis Kraounakis, who is a phenomenon in Greece but almost unknown to British audiences. Now he is bringing them to Islington’s Union Chapel for just one performance of All As One - Kiss Me on 27 January 2017. It is a show that celebrates the career of Kraounakis with a programme of songs that span four decades and some select theatrical numbers.

Stamatis Kraounakis is a big man with a big personality (and quite a big ego too) who has a large popular following in his homeland and among the Greek diaspora. He was born in Athens in 1955 and grew up there. During the dictatorship he was a student at the city’s Panteion University where he studied political science but at the same time studied music and even before that was fascinated by theatre. He was only 21 when he wrote the music for a stage production Varieme and a year later his first album was issued.

At university, Stamatis met Lina Nikolakoulou, a fellow student who was to become one of the best-known Greek lyricists, and they began to collaborate. In 1981, when Greece got its first socialist government, he wrote an album of songs for singer Vicky Mosholiou and in 1985 he and Lina released the Greek pop classic "Kikloforo ki Oploforo" ("I Walk Around Carrying a Gun") which soon sold over 200,000 copies.

Stamatis often writes his own lyrics but 80% of his songs use Lina’s poems and their partnership reinvigorated Greek popular music at a time when it was losing some of its national character.

Since that first collaboration, Stamatis has not only written songs for more than 60 albums but also award-winning music for movies and television series, stage musicals, a ballet, an opera for children and other music for both contemporary drama and the Ancient Greek classics.

His stage work has been very important to him throughout his career and in 1997 he became artistic director of the Municipal Theatre in Kavala in northern Greece producing work there in the years that followed.

Speira Speira was formed by a group of students for whom he led a seminar on musical theatre in 2000. With Kraounakis, they have continued to create work ever since. Some of the original members have gone on to have solo careers and others have come in to join them but it remains a lively company creating work that responds to what is going on around them. Though their work is often satirical, they have no direct political allegiance. Stamatis himself has never joined a political party. Neither he or the company have their own theatre but they perform at a number of venues and have become an established part of Greek theatrical life.

The show Kraounakis and Speira Speira are bringing to London has been seen right across Greece, including performances at the Little Theatre at Ancient Epidauros, and comes straight from a run at the Michael Cacoyannis Foundation Theatre in Athens.

It will bring music to stir memories for Greeks who grew up with these melodies, songs that have responded to Greek life over the years Kraounakis has been writing.

The show is made up largely of songs by Kraounakis himself but will include some by other composers, ranging from Manos Hajidakis to Arvo Part, even The Chieftains, and it uses texts drawn from George Seferis, Dario Fo, Federico Garcia Lorca and Wim Wenders as well as his and Lina’s lyrics. With Stamatis Kraounakis at the centre and the participation of five members of Speira Speira, this won’t be just an ordinary production. I’m looking forward to a real piece of theatre.