Reincarnated lovers riot on the streets of Athens in unique cross-cultural performance

Hip-hop and spoken word meet ancient Greek philosophy and art music in a cross-cultural production about the enduring nature of love.
Greek-Australian poet and spoken word performer Luka Lesson gestures with his right hand while holding a book in his left.

Blending slam poetry and the philosophies of Plato with contemporary social commentary, Agapi & Other Kinds of Love is a bold and ambitious bridging of cultural divides – a unique collaboration uniting art music and hip-hop in an exploration of love across the ages.  

‘I’ve integrated all my styles for this work,’ explains award-winning slam poet and rapper Luka Lesson, the production’s creator, writer, performer and co-director.

Based on Plato’s The Symposium, written circa  385–370 BC, Agapi & Other Kinds of Love (playing at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta on 29 February and 1 March) begins with Socrates telling a banquet of friends everything he learned from a mysterious lover named Diotima. The gods then take the audience on a journey – collapsing time and space to arrive in modern day Athens, where the ancient lovers’ modern reincarnations fall in love all over again in the midst of a riot.

In the process, the production also explores the many different forms of love, including eros (passion and lust), philia (affectionate love for a friend), philautia (self-love), storgi (the love of a parent for their children and vice versa), pragma (enduring love between partners) and agápi (the highest form of love: selfless, universal love).

‘The luck of me being able to draw on my own heritage, being Greek-Australian, is that I was not just able to draw on reading The Symposium but also able to draw on the experiences that I’ve had in Greece and in Australia – speaking to my grandparents and my parents, for example, or other people within the community as well as in Greece, in my grandfather’s village in Rhodes, where I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years,’ says Lesson.

‘I was able to find the substance between the lines – not just draw from the words themselves, but also really reach into what it means when someone calls someone else “agápi”, which is the actual word that we use for love today in modern Greek; it’s thrown around every single day.’

Agapi & Other Kinds of Love was developed during the early years of the pandemic, when Lesson was unable to perform live, and after a larger, more ambitious retelling of Homer’s Odyssey was put on hold. It encapsulates all aspects of his writing styles as well as other aspects of his life, including his tertiary education and his worldviews.

‘It’s all of me embedded in this work – not just in terms of the form that it takes, but also in terms of its themes in terms of politics, ancient Greece, drawing on my [cultural] heritage, drawing on my philosophies. I studied anthropology at university and so there’s just a lot in there, in between the lines. I think it’s thanks to those COVID years that I was able to really collect my thoughts and write this project in a really deep way,’ Lesson tells ArtsHub.

Plato’s timeless concepts of love are explored dramatically through Lesson’s heartfelt words and a live score composed by Dr James Humberstone, Senior Lecturer in Music Education at Sydney Conservatorium of Music and a composer-producer whose work embraces everything from experimental music and song cycles to composing for children and community ensembles.

Speaking with ArtsHub, Humberstone explains that he was unfamiliar with – even hostile towards – hip-hop until 2016, but embraced the challenge of learning about the art form after realising he was being somewhat hypocritical in his teaching practice.

‘At the Con I was teaching pluralism and the idea that people shouldn’t judge musical cultures from [within] other musical cultures, which obviously in a conservatoire is the kind of thing that happens all the time,’ he explains.

‘My son used to listen to hip-hop music and I would say to him it was just “shouting in time”. So I was really rude about it, but then I thought, “Well, I’m teaching pluralism but I’m not really doing what I’m telling my students that they should be doing and judging the culture from within the culture” … so in my own time, I spent four years learning about hip-hop production, electronic music production, more popular music production, alongside my usual “artsy fartsy” work, we might call it,’ Humberstone says.

Photo: James Humberstone.

Humberstone is proud of the truly intercultural nature of the work which, unlike such recent pairings as Hilltop Hoods with a symphony orchestra, in which the orchestra effectively serves as a backing band, is a genuine fusion of art forms, Humberstone believes.

‘I wanted to create an artistic space where everything is influencing everything else,’ he says. ‘So whether you’re listening to a big hip-hop beat with a booming 808 sound and fairly sparse musical texture, or whether you’re listening to something like the sounds that we have for ancient Greece –for which I’ve written more traditional orchestration – hopefully, there’s a consistent new sound that is truly intercultural.’

Lesson is quick to add how genuinely collaborative the project is, and praises Humberstone’s intuitive compositions for Agapi & Other Kinds of Love.

‘For me, the biggest joy is that for many of the spoken word poetry scenes, I would create the poem and then send it to James. And then he would pick up on my emotion in my voice and story and he would compose and somehow – I don’t know how, because we come from two very different worlds, and I guess this is the mark of a great composer, which he is – is that every time he sent me something back, he pretty much hit the nail on the head. I never said to him, “Oh no, no, no, change that completely, I don’t like how that’s going at all.” Pretty much every time he sent something back, I [would say], “How did you capture that? That’s insane!”’ the writer says.

‘And he really brings, obviously, another layer of experience and emotion to the project that takes it from being just a dude on stage telling a poem to something very epic and beautiful.’

Perhaps one of the most significant aspects of Agapi & Other Kinds of Love is its exploration of how philoxenia – love for strangers – is perhaps even more relevant in the 21st century than it was at the time Plato was writing his Symposium.

‘Socrates in that moment [of the show] is rapping, and he’s rapping to the table at the Symposium, of course. I use the feud between Athens and Sparta and the Peloponnesian War as the context for how he talks about how, actually, Spartans are just like Athenians. They pretty much look the same, they have families, they don’t want to die. They don’t want to have to go to war. And, in the end, there’s this tradition of governments and leaders taking their people to war and it being good for business,’ Lesson tells ArtsHub.

‘So I use ancient Greece as a way to talk about modern Greece, modern Australia or the modern world, but without needing to say exactly which parties I’m talking about because, in the end, the names of the nations change, but the problem remains the same. And so, being able to use ancient Greek history as a window through which we can look at modern issues has been a real joy and a major part of this project,’ he concludes.

Book now to see Agapi and Other Kinds of Love at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta on 29 February – 1 March 2024.

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Living Legend in 2017. In 2020 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts