Losing Games is a young Greek’s look at family past and national history. Described as “a devised ballroom performance”, this staging is in a former chapel.
Large areas of plaster have fallen from the walls, interior divisions are part demolished and there’s a replacement roof of corrugated iron but memorial tablets still stand on the walls, the bright images of saints still shine in stained glass and the Ten Commandments are carved in stone where the old altar once stood as Moses was handed them and a shaft of early evening sunlight cuts through a clear western window.
It is an atmospheric setting appropriate for a work that interrogates the past but one that presents its own problems.
A single row of chairs is lined along the walls, above them photographs, portraits and family groups; at intervals there is a photo on a chair, reserving it. A tea trolley is parked incongruously on the concrete floor, a bright red kettle on one side of the old altar place. There is a sound: it could be wind, or traffic or is it ocean waves. Is it a serendipitous environmental addition or a conscious created murmur-evoking memory?
Into the space comes a young couple, actors Alexandros Vardaxoglou and Chrysanthi Avloniti, who take the photographs laid on chairs and add them to the display above them, their own ancestry perhaps. He begins to prepare tea on the trolley; she brings the kettle of boiling water. One at a time they fill a cap and take it the empty chairs below the photographs they posted and place it as an offering. The ancestors are honoured.
Now there is music, a lively waltz, and the couple bow to each other and dance. She suddenly breaks away and dashes to a microphone. “I like games. Do you?” she asks and then re-joins her partner. Another dash: “I play all sorts of games. Do you?” Next time “There are rules!” He makes a break and says “Hello!”
And so the games begin. He sets up little clockwork figures to fight a battle: red uniformed English versus Germans: a video camera provides a close-up on the wall. She sings, “Love is a losing game.”
They don masks and, now grandpa and grandma, he plays a video game of combat in the air (the image projected) while she speaks of prison visits and preparations for an execution. They talk about their grandparents, taking down their pictures to show us: a hardworking and beautiful woman, a man who made ceramics, his irritating habit of clapping his hands in a gesture meaningless to younger generation, going on about boyhood without proper clothing and the sores on his legs in winter. As aged grandpa, he dances an awkward slow rembetiko.
That generation came from Asia Minor, refugees in the 1922 expulsion of Greeks from Turkey, and so begins a potted history, played out with toy figures, falling domino lines, an auction of Eastern Europe, that is interspersed with hopes and aspirations.
From the British arrival in Piraeas in 1944, the suppression of the left with 1000 Communist Party members tortured and killed, a civil war that killed more Greeks than died fighting the Italians and Germans, they take us through the Cold War to today’s refugee arrivals: more than 21,000 already drowned trying to reach Europe.
There is concord—more dancing that begins to embrace the audience, personal conflict, intolerance, “we don’t know how to love each other,” a recognition that our history becomes part of us: “it’s your blood in my veins,” a symbolic attempt at unity and a dash to the microphone that ends up wordless.
There is a much more explicit condemnation here of foreign (especially British) interference in Greek affairs than in Sunset at the Villa Thalia, which is just ending its run at the National Theatre, but it’s a partial picture and makes no reference to the Greek actions that provoked the 1922 situation and more surprisingly ignores the dictatorship of the junta (US supported) or the still continuing economic crisis.
The mixture of game playing, character re-enactment, ritual and physicality provides a variety that makes this an entertaining history lesson that is combined with an expression of the frustration of young people dissatisfied by contemporary values. Its performers bring a presence that invites engagement but they are seriously hampered by the acoustics of the location which make their delivery, already heavily accented, often incomprehensible to parts of the audience to whom it is not delivered directly.
It is made worse when resorting to the microphone, the use of which seems unnecessary although perhaps intended to emphasise when something is specifically directed to the audience. There is a problem with the projections too: with so much ambient light, it is difficult to see them; they demand a later hour or season in this setting.
Fortunately, there is usually enough overlap of spoken information to follow the argument and just enough image visible to guess the information when a performer uses them to write an introductory caption. These would be only teething troubles with a longer residency.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton