The International Festival of Classical Theatre in Mérida

Sara Rodriguez Romo | Live the World

November 23, 2022

In Mérida, the capital of Extremadura, every year a unique festival takes place: the International Classical Theatre, the oldest and most important of its kind in Spain. And the location could not be better: the ancient Roman theatre, the oldest in the world and still working as such. The theatre and Mérida itself are both UNESCO Heritage. During July and August, thousands of people come from all over the country to watch the best actors of Spain perform, at very attractive prices.

The Roman theatre

Mérida was the capital of Lusitania at Roman times, so they built a theatre according to this status: big and beautiful. The harmony of the architectural work and the high quality of the materials used, make this theatre one of a kind. However, it was partially destroyed when the Roman Empire became Christian since this popular entertainment was forbidden. The building, erected between two little hills, was eventually buried, filled with earth and garbage. People simply forgot that in this particular spot used to be a magnificent theater. All that was left of it was the superior part of the grandstand. Until the XXth century, the shepherds used to seat there, using the same seats as the Roman spectators. The place was popularly known as the “seven chairs.” 

Eventually, an archaeologist started wondering about the true nature of the seats carved in stone. Excavations began, and soon they dug out the once great theatre, built to welcome almost 6,000 people. Some remains of high quality still stood there, like statues of deities and emperors. Later on, they were able to rebuild the theatre almost to its old shape, since most of the materials were still there. The enormous front scene (17 meters high) was restored, and they made replicas of the statues to be placed there. Watching a play is like to be sent back to Roman times!

© Sara Rodríguez Romo

The Festival

In 1933, Margarita Xirgu, a very famous actress at the time, played the classic play Medea. From 1935 to 1953, they stopped the plays due to the unstable political situation in Spain. Nevertheless, eventually, it became a yearly Festival. Ever since Xirgu's appearance, it has been a "must" for the best Spanish actors to come and perform in Mérida.  Mérida is not a big town (60,000 people), so it is very usual to see them on the street. Now, every year, during July and August, from Wednesday to Sunday, the most popular Greco-Roman classics are played. Some of these plays are adapted to modern times; some still cherish the classical essence. Either way, their topics remain up to date! The landscape around the theater may have changed in the last 2,000 years, but not the people that attend this theater. After all, love and hate are as strong as in Euripides time.

© Sara Rodríguez Romo

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