Saved by the theatre, one local thespian who is a riot of contrasts tells THEO PANAYIDES he would rather make love than war
Marios Ioannou gives good profile – and he knows it, too. “I love interviews,” he exclaims happily on a bright, windy Limassol afternoon. “I love to talk!” The only question is where to do it. A nearby café is dismissed as too noisy. The idea of sitting on the low wall of the promenade, gazing out to sea as we chat, is briefly mooted but clearly impractical. We end up perched on stools somewhere in the newly-refurbished Old Port, between an incurious waitress and a noisy Spanish family. We talk (or rather he talks) in fluent English and flowing hand gestures, his drink remaining untouched.
Marios is among our leading actors, having appeared on stage, film and even – though never again, he insists! – local television. His most recent production was Uniting the Mediterranean Sea, a bold collaboration with actors from five Mediterranean countries, staged at the sea caves of Peyia, which he also wrote and directed. He has three movies coming out soon, and will also be teaching English-language theatre workshops for the first time; go to the ‘Theatre Tribe’ Facebook page for more information.
He’s also a character and a bundle of contradictions, physical yet obsessively verbal, generous and self-absorbed, with a fine appreciation for the well-turned provocation. He’ll say things like this, quoting Greek poet Nicos Kavvadias for the first part: “Prostitutes, sailors and actors have one thing in common: they hate their job, but can’t get away from it! And, if I wasn’t an actor, I think I would be a prostitute. If I was a woman, I’d be a prostitute.”
Or this: “I don’t like doctors. I think it has to do with aesthetics. I think that hospitals should have more music, more fun. There’s something about the aesthetic of it that doesn’t make me want to run to a doctor.”
Or this, on his theatrical ambitions: “What am I doing, what am I giving to humanity? How am I helping? Am I helping because Mrs So-and-So, who’s more knowledgeable than me” – ‘Mrs. So-and-So’ is a hypothetical theatre professional – “would do it in a better way? She probably would. Well, the stage is yours, darling, do it!”
Or this: “I connect more to a melancholic view of being homosexual. I mean, to me, melancholia and homosexuality are something that’s very connected… The way I fantasise doesn’t belong so much in a Beyoncé concert, for example. It would be somewhere where it’s a city and a grey sky, and not a lot of people live there. In a train! I would fall in love with a stranger in a train. In a dungeon! Somewhere where it’s difficult. I was never into Mykonos, I never went to Mykonos except for a performance. I never was interested in – that.”
He tends to come on strong, his body language at its most flamboyant, then subsides or perhaps adjusts to my own body language (he’s super-sensitive). He talks with a sense of drama, rising to mini-crescendos and laying heavy emphasis on this or that word. He’ll be 46 in March, but looks younger. He’s bald and stubbled, dressed all in black, with an earring in his left ear, a necklace in the shape of an anchor and a baseball cap at a rakish angle. His ears jut out; his eyes are soulful and anxious.
It’s an unconventional face, and he’s often cast as an unconventional person: in Conveyor Belt (a film where he was the only cast member, apart from a turtle) he played a lonely airport worker with an obsessive interest in other people’s luggage; in Rosemarie – one of his upcoming movies – he’s a kind of noble madman, standing watch over the denizens of a troubled apartment block. He won Best Actor at Thessaloniki (the only Cypriot ever to have won the award) as a Syrian immigrant called Mustafa in Kalabush, a film for which he spent two months wandering around Limassol in shabby clothes, toting a plastic bag and living the character.
The way Mustafa carried that bag was also Marios’ ‘way in’ to the character. He’s a physical actor, and indeed a physical person who uses his body as a safety valve when his mind gets overloaded (which is often). He’ll exercise every day, yoga or swimming and usually both. What does he do for fun? “I dance. I love to dance. Sometimes I dance alone, at home.” He tries to recall his favourite song, but only gets as far as crooning “Ooh-ohh-ohh” before collapsing in laughter. “I dance a lot. I love to dance. I walk a lot on the promenade. I’m a loner, I have very few friends. I’m a tree-hugger”. Very few friends? Really? He has no steady circle of friends, explains Marios, no gang of chums with whom to go out for coffee; “I usually go for coffee alone”. I recall the café where we almost sat for the interview, where he was greeted by a distant acquaintance and responded politely but stiffly, with a certain hauteur. His appetite for chit-chat, I suspect, is limited.
He’s physical in other ways too, trusting in sexuality (the idea of “sexual exchanges”) almost as a kind of religion. At one point I ask if he’s ever been in a physical fight, and he shudders visibly. He was born with a rare condition called osteogenesis imperfecta, explains Marios, which means his bones are fragile and break easily – “but I think my soul would also break easily if I was in a fight, I cannot understand to cause pain to someone else’s body. I’m a person who wants to make love with people. I mean really, like a hippy, ‘make love not war’. If there was no Aids, and there was a big field with naked people, I’d definitely be in there making love – then I’d just go onstage, perform, then go back again and continue making love! That would be my life.”
Was he always open about his own sexuality? “Not really,” he replies. “But the more time goes by, the more I kind of said goodbye to – inhibitions, is that the word?” He’s been with Achim Wieland, a German theatre director whom he met in Athens, for the past 14 years, but only came out as gay a couple of years ago. I suspect he’s even more relaxed about discussing it now, when he’s on the cusp of fleeing Cyprus (he plans a move to Barcelona in a few months) – because “Cyprus was the pod in which I was suppressed, when I was suppressed”. Marios recalls a rumbling, persistent anxiety, a case of ‘What will the neighbours think?’ that kept him in the closet for years. “I don’t think, if my mama was alive, I’d be able to [come out],” he admits frankly. “But when your mama goes, it’s a most painful freedom. Because, after both parents are gone, you are really alone on planet Earth.”
His mother passed away a couple of years ago. “She was a –” he begins, trying to describe her, then gives up: “I adored my mum!” he says effusively, rising to one of his mini-crescendos. “My mum was a muse, my mum sang songs, she liked [Greek singer] Sofia Vembo a lot – an extremely romantic woman, like an era of how women used to be, devoted to the one and only person. Singing, looking out the window, very melancholic, with her long fingers, smoking cigarettes, that’s how she insisted to die – smoking, smoking like crazy…”
The ‘one person’ was of course Marios’ father. What was he like?
“He was suicidal,” he replies unexpectedly. “And he died like that, committing suicide.” It happened around 20 years ago, the precise reasons still unknown – though Marios later discovered two unknown half-brothers in Germany, a secret his dad had been keeping for years. Maybe that’s why he himself prefers not to keep secrets, almost compulsive in his desire to reach out. “I love to communicate,” he says. “I love to talk.” Theatre, of course, is a way of reaching out, to the audience and indeed other actors; he recalls how he bonded with his co-stars in Uniting the Mediterranean Sea, crying on each other’s shoulders when the time came to say goodbye. He also recalls his father’s funeral, and the way he sat there devastated – then “I said to myself: ‘It’s all right. You have theatre’,” he says, and nods gravely. “It always saved me.”
Acting was always Plan A (there was no Plan B), the obvious life for a wildly imaginative boy growing up in Paphos in the 80s. “I knew that I was homosexual and an artist since I was very, very young,” he admits, having felt different in so many ways – no interest in football or the usual boyish roughhousing, escaping into Oliver Twist and Gone With the Wind – from the age of six or seven. He moves like an actor; he talks like an actor. Like those sailors and prostitutes, he can’t get away from it. “It was after me like a ghost,” says Marios, and tells a funny story of his days in Athens, trying to make it as a struggling, often literally starving actor, working as a waiter to make ends meet. “There was a morning when I woke up and said ‘I don’t want to be an actor’, I even phoned a friend and said: ‘I’m not an actor anymore! I’m tired of it!’. Then I went to this restaurant where I was working, I went to some customers with the menu and I read them the menu – and they said [in impressed voice]: ‘Oh! You must be an actor’.”
All well and good; but what does it actually mean to be an actor? TV acting – at least in local TV, which is not exactly HBO – doesn’t count, being the thespian equivalent of a sausage factory; Marios recently left a TV show on bad terms (“I was the only one that got fired, because I was the only one who demanded my money”), a risky move in Cyprus where TV is a steady paycheque in a fickle business. Film acting, on the other hand, has a poetry to it. There’s a magic in repeating the same bit of business over and over, “and through the repetition, to find the ecstasy”; it’s like a religious ritual. “I’m an actor-poet,” says Marios, a statement that goes a long way to defining him. He loves ‘devised theatre’, the improvisational process of making a show out of nothing, just whatever props are handy, finding the poetry in one’s surroundings.
I suspect he’s always been this way, feeling out of sync with the surface of things, seeing “life within life” as he calls it – that hidden layer, the touch of poetry. This is why he’s voluble and flamboyant, as if reaching out for that special response that’ll indicate a kindred spirit (this is also why he remains relatively alone, with few close friends beyond his sister and Achim; kindred spirits are scarce in a boring, material world). He looks around at our Old Port surroundings, gazing through the eyes of the actor-poet. A bull on the logo of a high-end steak house is poetry, or at least absurdity (aren’t they often the same thing?). His mum’s empty chair, or her shoes on the floor after her death, were a kind of poetic shadow. “Sometimes when I see Achim walking and there’s a clumsiness in the walk, that’s what I love”; that too is poetry, the flaw in the structure, the moment when life opens out into something poignant, and oddly revealing.
Marios Ioannou walks a tightrope, or perhaps many tightropes – between his bright, charming spirit and the melancholia he’s attracted to; between his love of Cyprus and his desire to “dream bigger”; between his hunger for talk (he laments the decline of words in the age of emojis and selfies) and lifelong flirtation with solitude; between life-as-it-is and the lyrical ‘life within life’ that moves him. There’s another tightrope, between the present and the future. I’ve caught him at a time of transition, he says, a time when he’s “changing skin”, like a snake. Uniting the Mediterranean Sea was a huge personal project that consumed him for two years; now it’s over and he feels the loss keenly (“like a child has been taken away from me”) – but he also feels a freedom, “this huge empty room with so much light, and it’s ready to be discovered”. Seven years ago, when he last ‘changed skin’, a doctor prescribed anti-depressants; now he knows it’s just a case of something coming to an end, and patiently waits for the rebirth.
There’s yet another tightrope, one that’s easy to lose sight of: the sensitive boy is also, as he puts it, a “tough cookie” who’s been through a lot. His folks were supportive, if somewhat repressed (“We never talked openly about the fact that I’m different”) – but Marios was bullied at school, and wrestled with his lack of ‘masculinity’, and struggled to fit in both personally and professionally. Even now, he reports with a touch of bitterness, after all his awards, state theatre company Thoc have never invited him to collaborate.
“So what I’m saying is,” he concludes, doing my job for me as he sums up Marios Ioannou (it’s no wonder he loves doing interviews): “Sensitive, wonderful, the son of someone who committed suicide, poetic, his mother sang Sofia Vembo – but, at the same time, I’m a tough cookie. I’m a survivor. And I do it through art, and I do art to survive”. Couldn’t have put it better myself.