February 1, 2016 / 12:56 PM / 2 years ago

Greek theater lowers curtain on political violence play as censorship row builds

The closed entrance of the Greek National Theatre's experimental stage, that hosted the fictional political thriller "The Nash Equilibrium" for two weeks before it was called off, is seen in Athens, Greece, February 1, 2016.Alkis Konstantinidis

ATHENS (Reuters) - The cancellation of a Greek National Theatre play critics had attacked as glorifying convicted killers has ignited a debate on political violence and art censorship in the country that began staging theater around 2,600 years ago.

The "Nash Equilibrium", a fictional political thriller loosely based on Greece's deadly November 17 guerrilla group, is seen through the prism of a militant.

It made headlines when it was called off in late January after two weeks of performance on the National Theatre's experimental stage. It followed protests by relatives of victims and by conservative lawmakers.

But demonstrations by actors and free-speech supporters outside the theater in central Athens led to one final performance on Sunday night.

"Today's performance is a victory which belongs to all of us," one of the actors said through a loudspeaker, before free tickets for the play were handed out to dozens of people waiting outside the theater.

The five actors, who performed without their original props and costumes, were welcomed on stage to strong applause.

Freedom of expression is a particularly sensitive issue in crisis-hit Greece, which has a history of political violence, including from November 17 and during the 1967-1974 rule by a military junta.

November 17 killed 23 people, among them U.S. and British diplomats, before being dismantled in 2002. Those arrested and convicted have been sentenced to multiple life times in prison.

The theatrical program of the Greek National Theatre's experimental stage, that hosted the fictional political thriller "The Nash Equilibrium" (announced in the center) for two weeks before it was called off, is seen behind metal shutters in Athens, Greece, February 1, 2016.Alkis Konstantinidis

Relatives of the group's victims said the play, which quoted excerpts from a book by imprisoned November 17 member Savas Xiros, gave him "a chance to become likeable" and was aimed at his release.

"Mr Xiros said he paid his debt ... Will he also bring back the fathers of our children?" asked Conservative MP Dora Bakoyianni in a tweet. Her husband Pavlos was gunned down by November 17 militants in 1989.

The U.S embassy said in a tweet that "art should not be censored" but added that it joined those who questioned "whether the public should fund the art of a terrorist".

On Thursday, the theater's artistic director canceled the last four performances of the play, saying in a statement that it had caused "more pain than room for thought" and had led to "threats", without disclosing further details.

But supporters said cancelling the play, which also quoted Nobel-prize writer Albert Camus' "Les Justes" and texts by political theorist Hannah Arendt was an act of censorship. The director and actors said they respected the victims' relatives.

The National Theatre's board issued a statement opposing the decision. "Art should host the voices of those who wronged and those who have been wronged, otherwise none of Shakespeare's plays would have ever been performed," it said.

Prime Minister's Alexis Tsipras' leftist Syriza party called the cancellation of the play a "sad development".

"We share the sensitivity and fully stand by the relatives of the victims," said Culture Minister Aristides Baltas adding that the ministry's role was not to intervene. "The blind reactions to one theatrical performance insult this social sensitivity and the memory of the victims."

Editing by Jeremy Gaunt.

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