LIA VITALI’S THEATRE,
- Konstantina Ziropoulou, Phd Theatre Studies, Adjunct Professor, Open University of Cyprus
[Translation: Elena Delliou]
Thematic axes, dramaturgical tools and techniques
"I am interested in the psychoanalytic side of things. If I were not a writer, I would definitely like to be a psychoanalyst",
stated Lia Vitali in 2006, in an interview during the presentation of Addio del Passato, her play which discusses the archetypal relationship between mother and daughter.
The psychoanalytic dimension is certainly dominant throughout Lia Vitali’s dramaturgy, a fact that is evident from her very first play (Evanna, 1990) to her most recent one (Zeibekiko, 2013) – a period during which the author has given us twelve plays that have been staged in Greece and abroad and have received several honors. This psychoanalytic core of the dramatic myth is underpinned by a realistic writing where dreamy elements alternate, and the boundaries between reality and illusion are often blurred.
In these two fields – the psychoanalytic one and the one that emerges from the combination between realism and dream – one can detect the author’s dramaturgical identity in terms of thematic and aesthetic style respectively. However, specific themes that are – somewhat persistently – encountered in Vitali’s dramatic universe, as well as the techniques through which their theatrical transformation occurs, can be summarized in the following points.
Love is almost always the driving force behind the actions of individuals. It is a psychoanalytic love, essentially unfulfilled and unreturned; the ever-eluding desired. It is expressed through intense lust and an utterly self-destructive passion (Zeibekiko), driven by a need to impose on and dominate over the other, triggered by the forbidden – love triangles constantly appear in her plays, like Love Me, Beasts in the Warehouse, Dinner, Rock Story, Gin Fizz, Addio del Passato etc. – and easily consumed, cruelly revealing to the heroes themselves and to the spectator the existential void that lurks behind every – by definition futile – erotic coexistence. Thus, gender relations emerge at times competing and at others woefully conventional (as in The Great Game, Dinner, Love Me!), dictated by the social imperatives of economic and social status. Demands for love, acceptance and mutual understanding – hitherto unknown to the heroes-bearers themselves – emerge powerful at the end of this strenuous path towards self-awareness.
The nuclear relationships between mother and son (Rock Story), mother and daughter (Addio del Passato), father and son (Beasts in the Warehouse) and those directly affected by them, such as the relationship between siblings (Addio del Passato, Rock Story), lie at the heart of Vitali’s problematic. The parents of Vitali’s failing young heroes are generally dramatic personae with frustrated ambitions and dreams, personal failures and emotional impairment; people who fight – unequally – with painful experiences and memories of the past.
Her theatre is, after all, consistently focused on young people and everything that youth symbolizes. A challenging, rebellious reaction to the establishment and conservatism, to respectability and hypocrisy, is the attitude that young people employ in most of her plays, in an attempt to cause cracks in the social fabric that engulfs them. When this “rock” worldview exists within a deeply diseased society – which the playwright does not hesitate to denounce –, it can bring the young people face to face with the crime, whether it is one against the others (Beasts in the Warehouse) or the self: "Guys, I want to tell you that there is absolutely no reason to get involved with heroin. It can provide you with no vision, no illusion, no fucking inspiration", sings Leo – the main character in Rock Story – before taking the fatal dose.
Along with the denouncing element that we touched upon above, but with an autonomous character, is the political element that is often intensely recorded in the author’s work. The political dimension is evident either in the dramatic situations themselves, in which the actors move (for example The Great Game, Love Me!), or in the same persons’ identity (Dinner, Beasts in the Warehouse). In the first case, the author targets the financial systems of the Western world, the powerful interests and the various manifestations of liberal policy, while in the second she focuses on the need for social recognition, but within a sociopolitical system that cancels humanity.
Therefore, Lia Vitali’s theatre does not focus on the marginal, but the integrated. The author is mainly interested in the respectable representative of the bourgeoisie, the successful careerist, the hero whose highest ideal is his advancement in the social hierarchy (Dinner, Beasts in the Warehouse, Love me!, The Great Game). Brutality and strife occur... Subsequently, various forms of violence fuel her theater with imaginative, provocative and particularly hard scenes. In situations like these, death can only have a redemptive character.
The author’s intertextual dialogue presents a special interest, with the ancient myths of Clytemnestra and Phaedra permeating Roast Beef and Gin Fizz respectively. The former one (Roast Beef) opened the doors of the London theatre scene (Riversides Studio) to Vitali in 2004, earning raving reviews from critics and spectators alike. The author approaches the ancient myths in an evidently revisionist way, that – in the case of Roast Beef – is already reflected in the dramatic nature of the text, which has all the characteristics of a black comedy. Clytemnestra, more murderous than all her previous versions, kills males but not Agamemnon; when it is his turn to die, she admits that she still is and wants to remain forever in love with him!
In her version of Phaedra, Vitali explores various manifestations of love, with the one of the homosexual passion as dominant; she keeps certain basic patterns of the ancient myth and playfully subverts the central one: Phaedra, the owner of a modern-day bar, is beset from an erotic passion, but not for her husband’s son, Hippolytus, but for his daughter, Hippolyta. It is because of her – when she realizes that she cannot have her – that she commits suicide.
As far as the dramaturgical tools and techniques – as mentioned above – are concerned, the author mostly employs realism, which merges with fantastic and dreamlike elements (Addio dell Passato, Rock Story, Roast Beef, and others. The dreamlike is mainly achieved through the ingenious use of the theatrical time, which enables the dramatic personae to move between the present and the past, the act that is experienced and the memory that is revoked. Reinforcing an atmosphere that oscillates between reality and illusion, with the ultimate goal of uncovering the heroes’ inner truth, it is the use of elements of a theater that stimulates the senses (music, sound mapping, smells of food, etc.).
Her works’ storyline obeys certain fixed rules: the dramatic action usually takes place in closed and interior locales – bar, warehouse, hospital room, kitchen, television set etc. – , and the same is true about Vitali’s whole dramatic universe. Each case is often initiated by an innocent game, or an excuse that gives no indication for the subsequent developments (Dinner, The Great Game, Gin Fizz, etc.). It is also true that the writer often incorporates grotesque elements, as well as black comedy and horror ones in her plays (The Great Game, Beasts in the Warehouse, Dinner, Roast Beef etc.).
The succession of dramatic events is rapid, and there is always escalation and climax of the dramatic myth. Sudden revelations subvert the plot (Addio dell Passato: the daughter confesses to her mother her relationship with the latter’s lover; Beasts in the Warehouse: Istralis reveals to her young lover her parallel relationship with his father; Gin Fizz: Phaedra speaks to her husband about her relationship with his daughter, etc.). At the end, there is always some kind of catharsis: the heroes redefine themselves through the pain, and often move towards the light (in Addio dell Passato the daughter will reconcile with her mother, and the same will be true for Manolis and his father in Rock Story. Michael will burn the money that he won in The Great Game, Zannis will support Alki in Love Me!, and Daphne will find the courage to report to the police the crime that was committed in the Dinner). It is this dimension of Vitali’s work that makes her theatre – one absolutely genuine in its intentions – to, ultimately, appear optimistic.
 See Lia Vitali’s interview to Ioanna Kleftoyianni. Eleutherotipia. January 3, 2006.