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Karagiozes Exposed

Open Arts
Arcola Theatre
(2008)

Production photo

Karagiozes (or Karagiosis as he is also spelled) is the leading character of the Greek shadow puppet theatre (Theatro Skion), which developed in Greece in the 19th century, especially in Patras by Dimitrios Sardounis who Hellenised the stories and the characters. It became a popular form of folk entertainment that can still be seen in Greece and Cyprus today and has also been metamorphosed into television series.

Shadow theatre probably had its origins much further east in China or India, while Karagiozes himself seems closely related to our own Mr Punch. Both have a hunched back and a big nose and both are given to hitting people over the head or getting hit themselves. He features in plays that reflect Greek the life under the Ottomans with bare-footed, workless Karagiozes using his tricks to feed his family, or they may retell historical stories or classical heroes in which Karagiozes may become the key assistant to the protagonist. Here the puppeteer presents the story of Alexander the Great and the Terrible Snake, a sort of version of the Perseus and Andromeda myth in which a princess is saved from a sea monster to whom she is being sacrificed. Karagiozes helps save a Pasha's daughter, but this play is about more than that.

Designer Pavlos Sideris has reinvented the screen on which we the shadows perform and created a sculptural form of curving sails. Puppeteer Antonis Tsiotsiopoulos welcomes the audience and introduces a small band led by composer Antonis Antoniou playing traditional-sounding music to lead into the puppet play. Rich-voiced Tsiotsiopoulos plays all the characters as would a typical theatro skion puppeteer (there are English surtitles for those with no Greek) and we meet several of the stock shadow-play characters who include Karagiozes's sidekick Hadjavatis, Baba Giorgos (Uncle George or 'mountain goat' as his nephew calls him) a broad-backed simple peasant with a big stick, Veligekas, the Pasha's man, and one of Karagiozes' children. Then there is an accident and the screen collapses (or did Karagiozes pull it down?). The hunchback has already told us he is fed up with his life and would like to end it, and now, like Petrushka, he manages to escape his controlling sticks and human operator and a real-life Karagiozes bounds on in front of the screen, ignoring the orders of the puppeteer. He has lost his hump and his big nose; his arms are back to normal size and he turns out to be young, rather good-looking and speaking in French! The language switch is not I think part of the plot, but Berthélémy Maridjen, the engaging performer, just happens to be Gallic. For some reason the French doesn't get subtitles, but you can probably follow without them.

There is some hilarious physical performance as puppeteer and puppet struggle with each other, spilling out into the audience, until eventually the rebellious Karagiozes agrees to continue the play so as not to disappoint the audience and it proceeds to complete the story of Alexander and the Snake, with Tsiotsiopoulos playing the heroic king life size.

It is all great fun, though depending heavily upon the skills of the performers and their ability to engage the audience. I would have liked it to go on much longer than the 60 minutes or so it does. But that would have meant directors Athina Kassiou, Euripides Dikaios and their team giving it more content. There is no attempt to use the Karagiozes format to make any contemporary points or give them modern relevance, but I suppose the struggle with authority will always be an issue, whether in Greece or Britain, in shadow land or real-life and Open Arts here give us a tempting taste of a traditional theatre form with an extra dash of live-actor vitality. Since we are now in the middle of Ramadan, and in Turkey Karagöz ('Black-Eye' is the Turkish meaning of his name) plays are traditionally associated with Ramadan, so it is especially appropriate that these performances are being given now.

Until 4th October 2008

Reviewer: Howard Loxton