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A storytelling session in Pompeii

The ancient Roman city of Pompeii, which was ruined by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79. Photos: Shutterstock

The ancient Roman city of Pompeii, which was ruined by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79. Photos: Shutterstock

What will Sir Elton John, Pink Floyd and Sophocles soon have in common?

They will all have both performed live in Pompeii.

Sir Elton did it 2016 and Pink Floyd in 1971. Forty-five years later, Floyd guitarist Dave Gilmour returned for a gig in the Campania region of southern Italy. Sophocles and his fellow ancient Greek playwrights, Euripides and Aeschylus, will make long overdue come-backs this summer.

Having opened last Thursday, the first classical drama festival (Pompei Theatrum Mundi Classical Dramaturgical Exhibition) will be taking place at the famous ruins near Naples and is on until July 23. The largest complete Roman settlement in the world, Pompeii’s amphitheatre pre-dates Rome’s Coliseum, making it the world’s oldest stone theatre and place of entertainment.

The festival programme includes the only surviving example of a Greek theatre trilogy, Aeschylus’s Oreasteia (first performed at the Dionysia Festival in 458 BC), directed by Luca de Fusco, the 430 BC Prometheus Unbound, directed by Massimo Luconi, who also directs Sophocles’ 441 BC Antigone, and Euripides’ Baccanti or Bacchae, directed by Andrea de Rosa. The play was premiered posthumously at the Theatre of Dionysius in 405 BC. The Teatro di Stabile cast will be led by Luca Lazzareschi.

Every show will be in Italian with the exception of Antigone. Una storia Africana, which will be in French with Italian over-titles.

Walter Ferrara, president of the Teatro Stabile of Naples, says: “The new exhibition proposal in Pompeii, next summer, strengthens the proactive role of the Stabile and the central role in the cultural and educational processes of the entire territory.”

Superintendent Massimo Osanna adds: “The festival will celebrate and revive the uniqueness and sacredness of these places, Pompeii once again looms as an art and culture laboratory. A famous stage still open to tradition and innovation.”

The venue is itself part of the storytelling,” says director Luca De Fusco. “Naturally, a second century amphitheatre has its own unique atmosphere. The audience enters through 74 Doric tufa columns. The theatre is not a neutral environment. It possesses its own natural distinct and incomparable character. It resonates with theatre.

“The venue is a cast member and plays a chief part in the theatrical narrative. It has a major role. It is a privilege and honour to perform on the stage made famous by the great Greek, Theban dramatists and the world’s first playwrights.”

Pompeii, meaning five hamlets, was entombed following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, five miles away, on August 24, AD79. This was a day after the ‘Vulcania’ festival, celebrating the god of fire. Around 11,000 people were killed.

A view of the ruins of the amphitheatre in Pompeii.A view of the ruins of the amphitheatre in Pompeii.

The explosion was 20 miles high, the heat 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit and 115 square miles were buried under ash and pumice (lapilli). The city was unearthed by Spaniard Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre in 1748, while building a summer palace for the King of Naples. The first building he unearthed was the theatre.

Landmarks include the Temple of Apollo, Hellenic Egyptian Temple of Isis, Forum, Basilica (Pompeii’s law court and  commercial centre), Frigidarium of the Terme Stabiane, or the Stabian Baths, houses like Amorini Dorati, or House of the Gilded Cupids, House of the Orchard, House of the Tragic Poet, House of the Faun, House of Menander (a Greek dramatist) shops (one has the inscription ‘Salve lucre, welcome profit’), decumanus and cardo cobblestone streets, Macellum food market,  pistrinum (mill), restaurants (cauponae) and bars (thermopolium), as well as frescoes and graffiti, such as ‘Gaius was here Oct 3 BC’, ‘Epaphra glaber es,’ (Oh, Epaphras, thou art bald) ‘Rusticus est Corydon’ (Corydon is a clown or country bumpkin), ‘Epaphra, Pilocarpus non es’ (Oh, Epaphras, thou art no tennis-player).

Pompeii’s amphitheatre pre-dates Rome’s Coliseum, making it the world’s oldest stone theatre and place of entertainment

There are also the remains of the recently collapsed Arch of the Temple of Venus and the ‘Schola Armaturarum Juventus Pompeiani’,  the building which housed the gladiators.

Neighbouring Herculaneum was also destroyed. Rediscovered in 1738, Caesar’s father-in-law had his holiday home there, Villa  Papyrii.

There have been scandals regarding the misuse of public funds with important restoration work being subordinated to the entertainment value of the site. Some critics believe the events adversely affect the historic integrity of the ancient archaeological site. Pompeii’s director of restoration was arrested. But the shows go on.

Sicily’s Taormina amphitheatre has staged concerts. The Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen have rocked Rome’s Circus Maximus.

Remarkably, the Pompeii theatre (originally called a “spectacular”) did not sustain much damage from the 11-hour eruption and its after-effects. The Large Theatre measures 135m long and 104m wide.  Originally, all that separated the audience from the stage and wild beasts was two metres. The south and east sides of the theatre were contained by the city walls. There were two entrances to the arena.

Through Porta Triumphalis, which was used for the opening ceremony procession of gladiators, and Porta Libitinensis, which was the exit point for those who didn’t survive the gladiatorial contests.

Ruins of the antique Temple of Apollo in Pompeii, Naples, Italy.Ruins of the antique Temple of Apollo in Pompeii, Naples, Italy.

Built in 70 BC with funds from Quinctius Valgus and Marcius Porcius , improvements and extensions to the amphitheatre were made during the Augustan period  by the brothers, Marcus Holconnus Rufus and Celer, and the architect, Marcus Antonius Principus.

The amphitheatre held upwards of 5,000 spectators and seating was divided according to social rank. The ima cavea in the orchestra was for well-to-do and has special platforms for the seats or thrones of magistrates, VIPs and leading dignitaries. The pink seats of media was for the general middle-class public.

There is some evidence to suggest there were such things as block bookings and corporate hospitality. Slaves, women and plebs viewed the games from ‘up in the gods’ in the summa cavae. Protection from the sun was provided by a giant velaria awning.

The external walls of the amphitheatre were covered with posters praising the gladiators and recording the outcome of the contests. The Thracian Celadus is described as the “hero” and “heartthrob of the girls”.

There was a small reservoir used for sparsiones (sprinklings of saffron water) to keep spectators cool.

The 80 BC Odeon was a smaller roofed theatre, theatrum tectum, and traditionally used for concerts. Behind the stage is a long dressing room or postscaenium. Following ancient theatre tradition, a machine used for suspending the gods and heroes was located at the left side of the stage.

The Teatro Stabile is Italy’s national theatre company based at the Teatro Mercadante in Naples’s Piazza del Muncipio. With the Teatro San Carlo, it was one of the city’s original royal opera houses. Opening in 779 as the Teatro del Real Fondo di Separazione, comic operas were sung mainly in Tuscan, Mozart’s operas Cosi fan tutte, Don Giovanni and the Marriage of Figaro were performed there between 1812 and 1815. In 1871 it was renamed the ‘Real Teatro Mercadante’, after 19th century Neaopolitan opera composer Savero Mercadante. “Many disasters have befallen the world, but few have brought posterity so much joy,” Goethe wrote after touring Pompeii in the 1780s.

Mozart visited Pompeii and was inspired to write The Magic Flute. In 2014, Puccini’s La Boheme and Bizet’s Carmen were performed there. Now it’s the old boys’ turn.

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