Last night I said ‘hello’ to shadow theatre figures and blew a kiss to my fave too. It had been 15 years since we had last set eyes on each other but the love is strong.
Fine, I’ll explain. I mentioned the other day when I wrote about the Rebetiko Carnival that there would also be a shadow theatre performance by Athos Danellis (a veritable legend).
Shadow theatre is very basically a cut-out puppets’ (we call them figures) performance on a white sheet. The room is dark and the light shines behind the sheet, making the figures show through. The main protagonist of all Greek shadow theatre is Karagiozis.
Karagiozis is a poor hunchbacked Greek, his right hand is always depicted long, his clothes are ragged and patched, and his feet are always bare. He lives in a poor cottage with his wife Aglaia and his three sons, during the times of the Ottoman Empire. The scene is occupied by his cottage in the left, and the Sultan’s Palace (Sarayi) on the far right.
Because of his poverty, Karagiozis uses mischievous and crude ways to find money and feed his family.
Students of folklore divide Karagiozis’ tales in two major categories: the ‘Heroics’ and the ‘Comedies’. The Heroics are tales based on tradition or real stories involving the times under Ottoman rule, and Karagiozis is presented as a helper and assistant of an important hero.
I was very fortunate to have met Petros in secondary school in Greece, a devotee of the genre and actual puppeteer. He knew I found what he did fascinating so once when I was 19, he took me along to an exhibition/ performance. I got to handle the figures (some extremely heavy and some really light), see how the puppeteers handled things behind the stage, meet Athos Danellis and sit down to dinner with them listening to all their discussions about the genre. It was brilliant. I believe we have a video of that somewhere and Petros threatens me that he will make it public.
Fast forward 15 years and last night Elena, Petros and yours trully went to SOAS to see the Karagiozis performance, accompanied by a great live orchestra. (Kyriakos Gouventas – he is super important btw – played the violin, Stelios Katsatsidis the accordion. Manolis Taouxis on the bouzouki, Maria Tsirodimitri on guitar and members of Gouventas’s violin class were playing too)
The play was hilarious, Athos was on true form with the voices (the puppeteer does all the voices) and I was amazed by how funny I found it.
Most plays we get to see are very old, part of an established canon, but the jokes change according to the location and times. So for example Karagiozis’ stomach was suffering because he had fish & chips the previous night. The combination of movement, sounds and banter between the characters makes it a very funny thing and oh so difficult to translate.
One of my favourite figures is Mparmpa Giorgos, a very strong and strict rural type. I used to be a little bit afraid of him when I was a child too. As I got older I found it hilarious whenever he got into all sorts of trouble – or when Karagiozis got him into trouble.
All in all it was an excellent performance and I do wish we could get to see Karagiozis more often. I think kids will simply love the stories but adults will find them extremely funny too. It’s a bit of a shame that the Greek community in London doesn’t seem to have a steadfast and well organised hub, I seem to hear that a lot from friends with children.
Disclosure: We went to the Karagiozis performance on 25 June 2014 and paid for our tickets. No prior discussion with the performers took place.