The Festival of Mérida, or more precisely, the Mérida International Classical Theatre Festival is held every summer in the Spanish city of Mérida (Extremadura). The festival is held amongst the city’s spectacular Roman ruins and is an enthralling event for lovers of classical drama. Offiially known as the Festival Internacional de Teatro Clásico de Mérida, this cultural event features performances of Theatre from ancient Greek and Roman works. It takes place in the ruins of the city’s Roman Theatre and amphitheatre, allowing attendees to watch classic plays in the same venues where they were performed thousands of years ago.
The Festival of Mérida begins in early July and runs for around a month. Each year focuses on a different theme, which is then incorporated into most of the productions. Past themes have highlighted famous Roman authors like Plautus and Seneca, the myths of Hercules and female voices in classical works. Renowned Theatre companies from across Europe stage a variety of major productions including works of drama, comedy and tragedy by famous playwrights including Sophocles, Euripides and even Shakespeare.
Before each evening’s main performance in the Roman Theatre, attendees can enjoy a preliminary reenactment show. Actors dressed in traditional Roman military garb perform mock gladiatorial combats and reenactments of famous battles. This glimpse back in time sets the mood for the grand performance to follow.
As well as the major theatre productions, the streets of Mérida are filled with entertainment during the festival. Street performers reenact Roman customs, while food stalls serve up ancient delicacies and wine. Evening musical performances attract visitors to the central plaza which comes alive with Roman spirit into the early hours.
History of the Festival of Mérida
The International Festival of Classical Theatre in Mérida is the oldest classical theatre festival in Spain and is considered the most important festival of its kind. The festival takes place annually in July and August at the Roman Theatre in Mérida, one of the best preserved Roman theatres from the time of Emperor Augustus. With 68 editions so far, it has become one of the most important theatre festivals in Spain, attracting tens of thousands of spectators.
The festival began in 1933 with a production of Medea by Seneca in a version by Miguel de Unamuno starring actress Margarita Xirgu. After a hiatus during political tensions in Spain, it resumed in 1953 with a university theatre group. Professional theatre returned in 1954 with Oedipus by Sophocles starring Francisco Rabal. Since then it has run continuously, featuring the great plays of Greek and Roman theatre.
Jesús Cimarro and his company Pentación Espectáculos have produced the festival since 2012. In recent years attendance has recovered, especially among local audiences, making it one of Spain’s top cultural events taking place during the summer months. The festival continues a 2000-year tradition of staging ancient comedies and tragedies in the ancient theatre, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Leading theatre artists from Spain and abroad have participated over the decades, leaving their mark on the festival’s history.
Venues For The Mérida International Classical Theatre Festival
Roman Theatre: This is the primary venue which hosts most of the major theatre and dance productions during the festival. Built in 15 BC, the ancient semi-circular stone amphitheatre can seat up to 6,000 attendees. Performances in this grand venue under the moonlight provide an unparalleled Roman atmosphere.
Roman Amphitheatre: Some of the smaller scale plays and performances are held in Mérida’s intimate Roman amphitheatre. With a capacity for around 15,000 spectators, it offers excellent acoustics and views.
Odeón Romano: This ancient performance hall housed music and poetry events back in Roman times. During the Mérida International Classical Theatre Festival, it is used for small concerts, recitals, mimes, monologues and experimental theatre productions.
Plaza Margarita Xirgu: This open-air plaza serves as the main hub for many festival events like concerts, activities for families, mingling with actors and street performances.
Alcazaba Arabic Fortress: Panoramic views of Mérida provide a scenic backdrop for a few nighttime theatrical spectacles on the fortress grounds during the festival.
Additional plazas and streets around Mérida are used as stages for pop-up street theatre, impromptu ancient Roman reenactments, staged fight shows and other surprise performances which emerge during the festival.
The Festival Internacional de Teatro Clásico de Mérida provides an unforgettable cultural experience against the backdrop of Spain’s most magnificent Roman ruins. The chance to see timeless productions in their original historical setting is one of the most unforgettable things to do in Mérida for anyone visiting the region during the summer months.