The rebetes were, as American Broadway director of Cafe Rebetika, Stephen Helper, said “social outcasts who composed and performed songs out of the need to convey emotional and psychic pain in the purest way possible.”
The rebetes came from all cultural and political backgrounds and out of their hardship created a subculture based on acceptance.
Stephen Helper was inspired to tell their story after he came across a photograph on the cover of a vinyl record that belongs to his Greek wife.
He wanted to know what it was really like for those who lived in the squaller of the backstreets of Piraeus in the 1930s.
Although he was initially drawn to the mystique that shrouded these maverick musicians, he became primarily interested in capturing the “raw reality” of their addictions, persecution and imprisonment, which Helper delivers with deft direction.
The Art Centre’s Fairfax Studio is ideal, the intimacy of the space accentuates the camaraderie between these misfits from Asia Minor.
Set designer, Bill Buckley, uses the space to form an emotional connection between the teke (hash den) occupants and the audiences.
Intimacy is established the moment the cafe proprietor, Fofo, embraces the audience with welcoming words and Greek cakes.
There is no shortage of dread and disappointment in a life of the rebeti. But the story is not weighed down by pity.
Music is the elixir of pain, and it sustains the characters in their darkest hour. Their defiant lyrics imbues the teke community with strength and resilience.
The musicians, under the direction of Achilles Yiangoullis, is like a Greek chorus observing the dreadful twists of fate that threaten to crush their friends.
Nigel Leving’s use of lighting helps tell the story with simplicity and clarity.
Fofo plays the illiterate cafe proprietor with the ease and innocence of an angel.
The hash-smoking anarchist, Yiorgos, counteracts the factory worker’s calls for revolution with his laconic humour.
And the prostitute, Katerina, is most impressive in her support for her ill-fated friend and mentor Areti.
You will warm to the commanding presence of the true manga, Stavrakas, who is father, friend brother and mentor to the ‘teke’ sub culture.
You will care for him as he cares for the prostitutes, anarchists, drifters, communists, drug addicts, refugees and prisoners.
You will feel his disappointments, regrets, dreams, and yearning for justice and compassion, but you will never feel pity for him on account that his story is a story of defiance and survival through song.
Stavrakas is a manga – with integrity and respect who takes responsibility for his actions.
He remains true to his philosophia, so too does Helper in bringing the authentic story of the rebetes to Melbourne.
With research associates Gail Holst – Warhaft and Stathis Gauntlet, as well as a stellar cast of Tony Nikolakopoulos, Katernina Kotsonis, Laura Lattuada and Thomas Papathanassiou, Helper has achived something in Cafe Rebetika that will move you in a profound manner.
The music will resonate well after the performance has ended.
Cafe Rembetika! is a great production.
Cafe Rebetika is at Fairfax Studio.