Monday, May 04, 2009


About a year and a half ago, I visited former NKEE editor and Renaissance man Argyris Argyropoulos in his home. Ensconced among piles of papers in his kitchen, he was making copious notes. “What, I did not know you could write?” I ventured. “Άσε μεγάλε, μπλέχτηκα,» he replied. “We have this idea about writing a musical about Rebetika. I really haven’t worked it out yet. Something about a tekke and how the lives of everyone in it intertwine around each other. And a jail scene. Definitely a jail scene. Actually, I think the opening scene should take place in a jail. There is the hero, incarcerated, playing his baglama. Too cliché? What do you think?”
The end result of that brief moment of spiritual copulation, is Café Rebetika, the musical, now playing at the Arts Centre, produced and directed by Stephen Helper and starring the likes of Tony Nikolakopoulos, Thomas Papathanassiou and Laura Lattuada, among a talented cast and punctuated with the musical brilliance of Rebetiki avec le jeune Paddy Montgomery, whose virtuosity on the Cretan lyra is a thing breathtaking to behold, as are the white and black gangster shoes sported by the ever stylish guitar playing Tony Iliou, as he looks the part.
As I sat in the foyer of the Fairfax Theatre, waiting for the show to commence, a friend who is a distinguished artist in her own right, remarked upon how significant it is for our cultural history, that a show of this nature and subject matter can be presented at such as prestigious ‘mainstream’ venue as the Arts Centre. In her mind, given that the presentation of such a ‘Greek’ piece could not have taken place a generation ago, the staging of Café Rebetika at the Arts Centre exemplifies just how successfully, we have “arrived” as a culture at the mainstream scene.
I experienced great difficulty in being convinced that topos is an exemplifier of success. Instead, I looked to the audience. Granted, the majority of them were comprised of Greeks who obviously knew something of rebetika, or were fans of the music. Some indeed had attended because they were enthralled at the prospect of seeing anything to do with Greek culture being performed at the Arts Centre. Finally, on the night I attended, there was also a significant proportion of non-Greeks, who invariably attempted to mimic the defiant, manly overtones of the leading character Stavrakas’ diction during the intermission and seemed genuinely enthused by their immersion in this unknown facet of our own cultural history.
As I walked in upon a stage set as a dingy café in the slums of Piraeus just before the advent of Metaxas’ rebetika-hating fascist regime, I remembered something that artist and thinker Dora Kitinas recently wrote to me about rebetika: “I think we have “εξευτελίσει’d” the rebetes. If they could see now how seriously we, their devotees take them, how much we study them and try to re-create their world, they would laugh and shun us.” In this context Café Rebetika can be seen to operate on two levels. As “Rebetika for beginners,” it is a plausible introduction and re-creation of the passion and despair-filled world of an entire nation of refugees, dislocated from their homeland and having as their only means of coping and self definition, their focus on their pain. In this respect, a particularly poignant moment in the production takes place when Areti the Rebetissa announces to the drug-addict Petrakis that she is Smyrnan and that he too should be proud of his own Smyrnan derivation. Here we see an identity being born that probably did not exist when their archetypes actually lived in Smyrna before the catastrophe. Another identity, that of the diaspora migrant who is unable to come to terms with life in Greece and must totally be removed from its bounds is also skilfully juxtaposed against that of the outcast refugee, both when Areti attempts to leave for America (the subject of a rebetiko song at any rate) and Katerina actually successfully leaves for Australia (though her assertion that free passage to Australia existed for Greek migrants in the thirties is manifestly incorrect.)
On another level, to the initiated, Café Rebetika functions as a one dimensional schematic evocation but not reconstruction, of the world of the Rebetes. In this regard, the character/archetypes strut their stuff upon the stage, playing time-honoured roles, dictated by tradition. The Rebetiko canon must have a weak and soul-tortured drug addict – Petrakis, a strong silent, self reliant manga who follows his own manly code – Stavrakas, a love interest – Areti, a golden hearted whore – Katerina, a moral philosopher – Grigoris and of course, a ‘bad’ man – Nikos. It is perhaps not without coincidence that some of the character’s entries and exits from the stage are heralded by the traditional Karagiozi entrance music. It is as if we are being told, that in keeping with the rebetes’ philosophy that «ψεύτικος είναι ο ντουνιάς,» or Shakespeare’s belief that “all the world is a stage,” that this is just a schematic representation of a contrived world. The characters cannot be anything else other than one-dimensional if one is to evoke key events or themes of the era. Nikos, the koutsamvaki is an archetypal ‘bad man,’ without the audience being provided into an insight as to why. We learn from the guide to the show that the “Koutsavaki” is a “hardened bully and extremely tough… a manga without the philosophia..” So there is no need to plumb the hidden depths of character here. Similarly, with Stavrakas (the name of a Karagiozi character with similar attributes), the character that comes closest to being ambiguous since he is a morally ambivalent manga who will not give up his code of free thinking, tramples all over the feelings of his beloved Areti, inadvertedly causes her demise, avenges her death because his honour code requires this of him and turns himself into the police, since he says, lamely and anachronistically aping Kazantzakis: “I fear nothing, I hope for nothing, I am free,” his sacrifice seems puzzling to us and we are unable to comprehend him as anything else other than, a manly man. Again, the closest we come to comprehending the hyperactive and frenetic frollickings of Fofo who paradoxically wears pants, is when she alludes to them conferring some type of ‘protection,’ upon her. However, none of this is ever examined in depth. On this level, it is assumed, as in the case of a Karagiozi audience, that the audience already has knowledge of the premises and cultural references that underpin the work.
From a feminist point of view, though the three female characters of the production pay lip service to ideals of self-determination and equality, as they represent archetypes rather than rounded characters in their own right, there is at least some attempt at resolution of their place within society, though we are not given to understand the reasons why they appear to be more liberated than their ‘native’ Greek counterparts. Katerina the prostitute seeks a new life in Australia, Areti, unlucky in love and willing to flout social norms as to the sanctity of marriage becomes a spectral source of inspiration and comfort to all at the café, while Fofo seeks liberation through literacy. It is interesting that while the male characters all seem as failures by the close of the work, the female characters manage to escape a socio-cultural cul-de-sac.
The attempts to show the rise of communism in Greece and its effects upon the newly formed working class against a fascistic climate are particularly well explored through the juxtaposition of two denizens of the café, one who becomes imbued with the new ideology, while the other embraces the ascendancy and false superiority that serving the fascist regime brings him. All the while, the laconic Grigoris, much in the same fashion as Benjamin the donkey in Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm,’ maintains his distance from the world and his indifference to all forms of political ideologies and indeed, definitions and words of any kind. The scene where he is roused to defy the fascist authorities raiding the café is thus as surprising as it is profoundly moving. Nonetheless, when the cast gets together and pronounces that they are Rebetes, save for a few rather obvious and forced monologues by Stavrakas into his free-thinking, macho world-view, it is taken for granted, that we understand what they mean.
Much like the classic film ‘Rebetiko,’ which seems to have served as an inspiration for ‘Café Rebetika,’ musicians are closely interwoven within the main protagonists’ lives. The musicians of Rebetiki are cohesively integrated within the production and in my opinion steal the show, since their music, excellently executed as always, acts as a running commentary that contextualised the unfolding drama, in a manner reminiscent of a choir in Ancient Greek theatre. The actors too, some of whom do not speak Greek, perform decent renditions of a few of the better known rebetika songs.
The drama is engrossing, the story soundly constructed, the tension palpable and the acting thoroughly engaging and entertaining. My only criticism would be something that cannot be helped – the fact that in switching from Greek to English with a faux Greek accent in order to provide authenticity and permit a multicultural audience to relate to the work on the two levels previously discussed herein, a certain element of confusion and contrivance is introduced, albeit at a minimal level.
For reasons that ought to be studied at length, the Rebetiko musical genre has succeeded in capturing the imagination of a significant group of Greek-Australians, creating an Antipodean rebetiko sub-culture in its own right. Café Rebetika will appeal to all lovers of Greek music, culture and drama. As a historic production, it certainly deserves our full support. Diatribe leaves you all this week frantically booking tickets, with a few choice words from the masters themselves: «Όλοι οι ρεμπέτες του ντουνιά, εμένα αγαπούνε.»


First published in NKEE on 4 May 2009