Saturday 22 April 2017

1,001 Films: "The Travelling Players/O Thiasos" (1975)

The players in Theo Angelopoulos's The Travelling Players are stand-ins for the Greek people, and they travel - or, rather, they wander, while the camera travels beside them in directorial solidarity - back and forth through the first half of the 20th century, attempting to perform an old standard of the Grecian stage (Golfo the Shepherdess), all the while being whittled away, by time and by circumstance. At the head of this troupe sit the left-leaning manager and his errant wife, playing away with another actor known for his fascist sympathies; the married couple's son is a soldier dispatched to various fronts as war and civil unrest break out, interrupting his own romance with the company's leading lady. The film's unifying theme is that very unrest, disruption: in a subversion of the theatrical maxim "the show must go on", these players barely get beyond the first scene of their chosen text. As the curtain of each new dawn rises, they're obliged to start all over again - often from a worse place than before. First, the leading man is pursued offstage (and arrested) by government agents; after a brisk spot of recasting, the next show we see them perform is cut short by an air raid. It's hardly a surprise that the story becomes scrambled, achronological, as though losing its thread: the camera pans one way, across a road as observed in the run-up to the 1952 elections, then pans back, without cutting, to show the same thoroughfare as it was under the Nazi occupation - the idea being that this tumult and turmoil was ever thus.

Watched from the perspective of the early 21st century, The Travelling Players makes sense of almost everything that has followed: it's a fulsome introduction to a society that considers it standard operating procedure to smash the plates at the end of every meal, a culture with drama in its blood. In a scene that seems crucial to what the film is getting at, an officer steps onto the stage to shoot yet another of these accursed thesps dead, only for the onlooking audience to break into applause, having long since learnt to accept such violent ruptures as part of the scenery. No film has engaged more with the political ramifications of what it is, and what it means, to act: whether that means to give in and become a plaything, something to be molded by firmer hands, stripped and sent to wardrobe to come back with a new uniform, or conversely to hold out, to resist, and in doing so, to begin to assert one's independence as an individual. Angelopoulos regards history as a crowd scene, an epic swaying to-and-fro, with all the internal tensions that implies: the characters are identified less by their given names than by what they chant or sing, the flags they carry and discard. 

This makes Players sound demanding; in fact, it's an unusually absorbing watch in its feel for cold, wet, quiet (often port or hillside) towns - the kind of place at the furthest reaches of the rep circuit - which suddenly find themselves invaded or bombarded. If it's not the fascists entering stage right, it's the Communists charging in from the left, and it's all the actors can do to hit their marks, remember the roles they've been handed, and try not to be too distracted by what may be lying in wait for them in the wings - nor, indeed, by the threat of dying on their backsides. The film has a lofty reputation as Angelopoulos's masterpiece: at almost four hours, it's certainly a considerable benchmark against which to set all this director's subsequent examinations of Greek history. But don't let the running time put you off: essentially, we're watching history played out in one take as farce, in the next as tragedy, and then over and over again until it really does begin to take on the weight of history - something complex, alive, and (the real liberator, once you come to accept it) hard to pin down while you're milling around in the very middle of it.

The Travelling Players is available as part of Artificial Eye's The Theo Angelopoulos Collection vol. 1. 

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