Mytilini’s ancient theatre is not easy to find, situated at the top of the largest of the hills which ring the town, with no direct route up, but I managed to make it even harder. I had seen signs pointing to it down by the ferry terminal, so that was where I headed, but of course, they were intended for travel by car. If I had looked at the map before setting out, I would have realised that the far more direct route was to head into town and then work my way up through the higgledy-piggledy maze of streets that lie above. But I daresay the additional exercise did me good, and eventually, with the help of some local shopkeepers with very limited English, I found myself at the entrance to the site. I was told the entrance fee was one euro, but when I proffered a five euro note, I was waved through.
It took me a few minutes to understand what I was looking at. Many people will know the layout of a traditional Greek theatre: a half-circle of marble terraces (the theatron) looking down onto a flat circle (the orkestra) with a raised stage (the skene) behind. Of these three components, at Mytilini only the orkestra is still entirely clear, having been excavated by archaeologists in 1958. The terraces are covered in earth and grass, even a tree or two, and little remains of the skene or the tall building which would have stood behind it (presumably the large stones which lie around the site are what it was built of.)
Nonetheless, it is still possible to imagine an impressive site. The orkestra is 24 metres across, and the terraces which stretched up away from it would have held about 15,000 people. Apparently, it was so impressive that it became the model of the theatre at Pompeii. One interesting, slightly more modern adaptation is that the Romans built a six foot high wall around the orkestra, replacing the first few rows. As the high culture of Greek theatre gave way to low Roman spectacle, the audience needed to be protected from the wild animals used in such events. An early and physical demonstration of dumbing-down.
I have been involved in theatre for virtually all of my adult life. Coming to Greece for the first time gives me the chance to perform my own pilgrimage. In that way, visiting the theatre at Mytilini is, I suppose, my own personal journey to the holy land, the roots of the culture that has threaded its way through my life. But let’s not get too pompous about it.