The OMA-designed scenography for the classical plays at the Greek Theatre in Syracuse has made architectural headlines in recent months, but no analysis can fully comprehend this experience — the first of its kind for the Dutch firm — without taking a look at the specific remit for productions by the Istituto Nazionale del Dramma Antico (INDA), the foundation responsible for plays in Syracuse, headed by the overseer Federico Balestra. After a long and difficult time, this institution seems once again able to produce a classical play programme of a class worthy of the intentions behind the initiative, which originated in the early 20th century, i.e. to perform the ancient repertoire in productions that are moderately experimental but still attract large audiences.
In a provincial city where tourism brings economic relief on a seasonal basis, filling a theatre with more than 5,000 seats for approximately 1½ months of the year is no mean feat. Consequently, they are not offering totally experimental theatre, but raising the level of a popular approach that will still draw the general public.
Some years ago, INDA realised the importance of scenography and the advantages — also in terms of media focus — of appointing internationally renowned architects to design it. Now, after projects by Doriana and Massimiliano Fuksas in 2009 and Jordi Garcés in 2010, it was OMA's turn to come up with a set for the 2012 season.
The choice did not fall on OMA as the result of a precise strategy, but stemmed from a fortuitous chain of events based on a policy of extending famous architects' local commitments plus links between local professionals, INDA and prestigious foreign designers. In this case, instead of INDA approaching OMA, the latter initiated a dialogue that led to its appointment for the design, an appointment in which the long-term presence, in loco, of a member of the Dutch firm played a crucial part.
OMA's response was based on reconnecting the tiered seating and the stage. In completing the ideally circular diazoma (the annular corridor set approximately midway between upper and lower sections of the audience for access), the set encompasses an enclosure that serves as a backdrop and circumscribes the space where the events are portrayed, but also defines the area containing the audience. Built as a circular tubular-steel walkway (referencing the circular elevated routes in certain examples of the "designed architecture" of OMA's Manhattan days, such as the Welfare Palace Hotel and the Egg of Columbus Circle), it also revealed something even the archaeologists were unaware of — the existence of an inclination in the diazoma, designed to let water flow away. Connecting the two different heights, the walkway looks like a continuous level ramp that completes the semicircle of the theatre. Actually, with a stratagem typical of stage machinery, the different levels are connected by two steps concealed from the public, behind a cypress tree beside the stage. The audience would have noticed this "geometric" device if, as was the designers' initial intention, the walkway had performed the same functions as the diazoma and given spectators access to the stage, which consists in two discs: a "raft" or flat surface that exactly reproduces the size of the theatre orchestra and the "machine", a slanting terrace of steps seven metres high that mirrors the amphitheatre. This revolves and splits open in the centre to allow the actors and whatever else to enter the "raft".
These two "solar" plates clad with the same wood — but laid at different times, resulting in different hues — are abstractions referencing the post-WWI avant-gardes. The "subconscious" set model seems most certainly Walter Gropius' design for Erwin Piscator's Totaltheater — with rotating tiers and platforms, the orchestra set centrally and at a tangent between audience and stage, elevated access and service routes and even the thought of possibly screening the tubular-steel frames, used for projections.
The far less complex OMA design succumbed to the many cost, safety and construction constraints imposed by the Sicilian environment. Yet, nearly all their inventions eventually proved effective for the narration of the works presented. The walkway may have lost its public function but continues to provide many with access "from above" — the gods and characters that typically enter the stage in ancient plays. The rotation of the tilted circle also permits "stage changes", with one performance starting when the other ends.
Overall, the project features a sort of "abstract contextualism", not because — as someone ironically indicated — it mocks Mario Botta's tilted circles, but because the figure of the circle, so often repeated in the Dutch office's designs and initiatives (from the window in the house in Bordeaux to the cover of the book on metabolisms, the graphic design of the Moscow plan presentation and the park project for Toronto), is a sort of unconscious transfiguration of the archetypal figures in the pre-existing Graeco-Roman architecture.
The stage machine does its job in Prometheus Unbound, but in Bacchae, the orchestra set up, exalted by the movements of the Martha Graham Dance Company (and their swirling red and black costumes), certainly brings more completion to the circular stage. When tested by the performances, we would say that the dialogue between set and the direction might have been even stronger and there were some pauses — but these were opening performances, so they will disappear in the future. These let ups also seem the product of the "directing approaches" and a certain baroque style that seems almost to meet a Sicilian necessity for "must-have kitsch" in costumes and floats.
Over and above all this, the scenography (save perhaps in the case of The Birds, in which the stage remains immobile) has introduced a major break from tradition in that it does not restrict the set design to the creation of a backdrop — however consistent with the concept and ancient performance methods — but turns it into a structure that brings seating area and stage, public and performance, into contact (which is the truly crucial element of ancient plays, seen as a moment of encounter with the polis and education).
By showing both the "rear" tubular structures supporting the walkway and the "machine", not only does the set break away from the concept of a backdrop so frequently required by the Syracusan theatre, it also reveals the existence and quality of the movements and machinery needed for the performance, the people who "invented" and actually built the structure. These figures are invisible to the audience but illustrate how investment generates experience, know-how and practical training and art generates a profession.
In Syracuse, thanks to a fortuitous chain of events, or perhaps the firm's collective will, OMA has hit the bulls-eye three times: by managing to show that today's crucial issue is to build or consolidate a specific cultural production in a local context; putting this context in a position to absorb the know-how and turn it into something different and permanent; and that the intermittent production model is linked only to the intermittent rhythm of tourism.