It's a warm night in Athens and the nuns have broken the police line. They didn't have to try too hard. The lines of riot cops assembled outside the Chytirio theatre are mostly trying to stop the anti-fascists from reaching the neo-nazis, nuns and priests who have come to protest the opening of the “gay jesus” play Corpus Christi, not the other way around. So when the little old lady in the black habit bobs past the shields and helmets to harangue assembled anarchists and activists about blasphemy and sodomy, nobody tries to stop her.
This is the opening night of Corpus Christi, Terrence McNally's iconoclastic 1998 play which casts Jesus and his disciples as gay men in rural Texas. It wasn't supposed to be the first performance – last night's opening was violently shut down by a gang of thugs from the fascist Golden Dawn party, who warned that that "in any case where the religious sentiment of Greeks is insulted, the Golden Dawn will react dynamically”.
"Dynamically" meant, in practice, that audience members and journalists were beaten, threatened and called "faggots" and "ass-munchers", and the police – 50 percent of whom, according to some polls, are Golden Dawn supporters – allowed it to happen. Eventually the fascists managed to lock the actors inside the theatre and opening night was postponed. Postponed, but not cancelled – it seems that it will take more than the threat of getting their brains beaten out on the pavement while the police stand by and do nothing to stop this cast from putting on the play they came to perform.
Tonight, 200 anarchists and anti-fascists have come out to protect the theatre from the Golden Dawn. Right now, there is a stand off. The fascists are on one side, along with a handful of elderly priests and nuns swooping about like cracked-out ravens and shaking their crucifixes at anyone who will pay them attention, and anti-fascists on the other, behind a solid wall of riot shields.
Last night, Athens police looked the other way while fascists beat up theatregoers outside Corpus Christi. Tonight they've got the place on lockdown. What's changed? It might have something to do with the gaggle of reporters, cameras and news organisations from all over Greece who've turned up to see what happens. On opening night, when few cameras had arrived, Manolis V, a blogger for Lifo magazine, was taking pictures of priests ripping down Corpus Christi posters, when he found himself surrounded by neo-nazis.
"I told them that I write for Lifo, thinking that that would protect me. Instead they started yelling, 'This fag works for Lifo, come and see this faggot.' They ganged up on me, started swearing at me and pulling my beard, and one of the Golden Dawn MPs spat in my face. They were all around me." On the phone, Manolis sounds shaken.
"I managed to leave and they kept shouting at me, 'You run away you faggot, you ass-muncher.' I looked back from half a block away, and then this other Golden Dawn MP comes over to me and he punches me in the face.
"'Cry you little girl,' he says. 'Cry, you faggot.'"
The Golden Dawn created a YouTube sensation earlier this year when MP Ilias Kasidiaris assaulted a left-wing politician on live TV, and they still appear to see no reason why elected parliamentary representatives should not punch the shit out of known journalists in the street.
"I fell to the curb and he kicked me. My glasses were gone. I'm shouting, 'Police, police, help, they are beating me,'" says Manolis. "The police officers turned their back and pretended not to see. As I moved away, one of them blew me a kiss."
Time for us to go in. To get to the theatre we need to talk our way past three rows of riot police in full armour and through the locked double-doors into a little courtyard below an outdoor stage. It's quiet in here. A handful of actors, stagehands and journalists skulk on the terrace, smoking and drinking soda and glancing nervously at the growing crowds outside the gates.
Staging Corpus Christi was always going to provoke controversy. Before readers outside Greece get too smug, bigotry of the sort that has put this theatre under police occupation is hardly exclusive to Hellenic neo-nazis. Almost every production of Corpus Christi in the United States, including the 2010 revival, has been greeted with angry crowds hurling homophobic abuse in the name of religion, and the original LA run was a flashpoint in the American "culture wars" of the 1990s. However, as director Laertis Vasiliou explains, "That was 15 years ago. We live in 2012, we didn't think there was anything to be afraid of.
Corpus Christi director, Laertis Vasiliou
"Then last night outside the theatre, it was like Kristallnacht, you know, during the Third Reich in Germany." Laertis, 38, looks like he hasn't slept for a week, which, indeed, he hasn't – at least, not in his own bed. The director has been so afraid for his safety that he has been unable to return home, and has been hiding with friends in other parts of the city.
"The people who came to see the performance, they had tickets in their hands and they were beaten. They were beaten! They were beaten by these extremist thugs and they were thrown out. We couldn't open the gates of the theatre. We did a rehearsal instead. We are hoping that the performance will go ahead tonight." Laertis is chain smoking, sucking on long straights like a man trying to come down from a bad trip, as actors and flunkies mill about in the little courtyard.
"It is sad that in the country that gave birth to the theatre and that gave birth to democracy, in this country, on this road – do you know the name of this road? It's Iera Odos Street – do you know what that means?" I shake my head. "It means, 'holy street.' And why is it called Holy Street? Because 2,000 years ago in Ancient Greece, people came here to see the mysteries played, to see the theatrical festivals, and for 2,500 years this street has had the same name. This is the street of the theatre. And they decided to shut down the theatre.
"I have been threatened. I have had threats on my life, my family has been threatened, my parents. I am getting messages on my mobile, on my home phone. My life is threatened here. I came to Greece from Albania 20 years ago, and Albania was the most horrible regime of the Eastern bloc, a totalitarian regime, and even they didn't manage to close down the theatre." At this point Laertis breaks off and, quite suddenly, starts to cry.
"Twenty years ago," he says, trying hard to keep the tremble out of his voice, "I came to Athens because I am of Greek origin by my mother. Last night they were calling my name and they were saying, 'You fucking Albanian, come out and we will bury you alive. We will take your head off. We will cut you in pieces, you fucking Albanian.' I made this country proud in 2005 and in 2008, with two first prizes in international theatre. In 2012, they want to kill me. Why? What have I done? Really, what have I done?" One reason that the figures for 'illegal' immigration are so high in Greece is that, even for the children of immigrants born in the country, citizenship is practically impossible to get – Laertis has no papers, despite having been here for 20 years. Legally, he is an un-person.
"They don't understand that nobody is going to prevent me from my right to speak free. If they don't want me any more in Greece then I will take my family and go." The effort not to let the tears take over is hardening Laertis' face and making it ugly. "You know, it is hard for a person to hear people calling his name and saying, 'Come out you fucking Albanian, we're going to put a stick through your asshole and shove it up through your mouth and mount you outside the theatre for the world to see.'
"I feel threatened. Wouldn't you feel threatened?"
Outside the theatre, more Golden Dawn members have arrived. The atmosphere grows tenser: later, some of them attempt to attack the anti-fascists, but unlike yesterday, the police are obliged to stop them from beating the opposition. What’s most interesting about this standoff is the fact that neither side has brought out the shock troops: the real shaven-headed, black-shirted heavies of the Golden Dawn who have been stabbing and brutalising immigrants in Athens and its surrounding areas for months are almost nowhere to be seen.
Instead, the Golden Dawn members who’ve turned up are older guys, skinny guys with suspicious moustaches and teenage boys, one of whom yells something vile-sounding at me in Greek as I cross no-man’s land – and then apologises when I tell him I’m an English journalist. Some far-right thugs thrive on media attention – the English Defence League in Britain come to mind – but not the Golden Dawn. They want to do their bloody work away from prying eyes. In the middle of the neutral zone, where camerapeople dart across the road to get pictures from either side, a jolly little tourist bus suddenly appears, small and white and done out like a train, pootling through the standoff as if it were taking visitors to the beach. It is completely empty. The paintwork reads: "Tour Athens!"
The fascist nun is still ranting away. She looks unnervingly like my own grandmother who, among many noble qualities, was also a small, round, racist Mediterranean religious fanatic whose favourite thing in the whole world was to shake pictures of Jesus at anyone arguing for gay rights. Of course, my Nanna didn’t have an army of shady bruisers backing her up, although she probably would have liked one.
The nun tells the anti-fascist lads who are attempting to reason with her that native Greeks and Christians are “victims, victims,” and the Golden Dawn are the “real patriots” keeping Greek society from falling apart. Which is an interesting argument, given that unemployment in Greece is over 25 percent – it's 54 percent among young people – there are General Strikes every couple of weeks and there’s rarely a day right now when significant parts of Athens aren’t on fire. Seriously. Last night I couldn’t get my translator to come with me to watch a burning bank in the north of the city because it was late and there would probably be another bank on fire tomorrow.
"I don’t think there's any law left in this country,” says Manolis. “Everybody is either afraid of the Golden Dawn or in cahoots with them and it is impossible to tell which.”
We’re having this phone conversation in front of a row of riot cops, who start to give us some extremely dodgy looks. Time to leave. When we arrive back at the apartment, we get a text telling us that the Athens production of Corpus Christi has finally opened. To a packed house.
Laurie Penny is a journalist, blogger and author. Her latest book, Discordia, is about the Greek crisis and you can get it here.
Follow Laurie on Twitter: @PennyRed
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