From Beckett to Euripides, the grande dame of Cyprus theatre has played them all. THEO PANAYIDES talks failing bodies and growing older with the actress who has recently made a well-received comeback
This might not be the best day to talk to Jenny Gaitanopoulou. Someone in her block of flats – it’s not clear if the culprits are the people on the third or the fourth floor – is taking advantage of this Saturday morning to refurbish their home; a constant racket of banging and drilling comes from below, threatening to eclipse our conversation. Her flat is lived-in, not too large, centrally located. Jenny lives here with four cats and a friendly Bulgarian companion named Dora whom she delicately calls “my flatmate”, though her job is clearly to provide assistance as needed (Jenny turns 80 in September). The name on the mailbox downstairs is ‘Evis Gavrielides’ – her late husband, a renowned theatre and TV director, who passed away two and a half years ago.
Then again, this might also be an excellent time to talk to her, perched as she is between two significant events – one planned, the other not. The unplanned event was a hospital stay the week before our interview, after a painful two-week ordeal which turned out to be gallstones: a reminder of failing bodies and growing older, a recurring theme in our conversation. The planned (and much happier) event is the final performance – at the Rialto Theatre in Limassol, the Tuesday after our Saturday morning – of Klytaimnistra, i to Englima (‘Clytemnestra, or the Crime’), Jenny’s triumphant return to acting after 14 years.
“We’ve had a very successful show,” she tells me – which is something of an understatement. “There are productions which are merely tolerable,” wrote theatre critic Giorgos Savvinides in Phileleftheros; “There are others which are good, or very good, or stunning, or which take your breath away. Very, very rarely, there are also those which are HISTORIC.” The return to the stage of Cyprus’ theatrical grande dame obviously falls in that last-named category, especially in a play which would unforgivingly have exposed any rustiness: the entire second half is a 30-minute monologue by Jenny as Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife, standing alone onstage to explain to an unseen judge why she killed her husband 40 years earlier. The first half includes other passages from various sources, brought to life by Marios Mettis (who also directed) and Christina Konstantinou. Mr. Mettis sits in the next room as we talk, waiting patiently for the interview to finish, obviously having been summoned by Jenny for moral support. It must be strange for her, doing interviews again after all these years.
The play is a one-off, she insists. She met Marios and, despite their age difference (he’s in his 30s), liked what she calls his view of theatre – “not just showing off, [but] going deep into the work so you can communicate it later” – and showed him the Clytemnestra monologue by French writer Marguerite Yourcenar, which he liked and agreed to mount as a stage production. Jenny had played it once before, years ago, at CyBC – one of her big institutional employers in Cyprus, the other being the Cyprus Theatre Organisation (Thoc) from which she retired in 2003. “I was an employee,” she insists more than once, depicting herself not as a diva – perish the thought – but a jobbing actress, doing whatever she was told.
Was she never temperamental as an actress? Was she never difficult?
“I didn’t have the opportunity to be difficult.” Jenny laughs, shaking her head. “I was submissive,” she insists. “I was submissive.”
It’s part of her nature, or perhaps her persona, to be self-deprecating – especially when it comes to her husband, who also directed her on numerous occasions (including that first Clytemnestra at CyBC). Evis was the man of her life, and she misses him desperately: “We had a very close relationship. And he was my teacher. Both as a director, when we worked together, and in life as well.” It doesn’t sound like a very equal relationship – at least in her telling – but it obviously lasted. Did it help that they both worked in theatre?
“Certainly. He was my teacher.”
People often say that it’s better for couples to keep life and work separate.
“Not for us. Life was different with us. He was very devoted to theatre, and brought a great deal to Cyprus.” She sighs, reminded of the old days. “Those were different times in Cyprus, life was different in Cyprus. There were interesting things going on, now the world is… How shall I put it?” She pauses, looking for the best way to put it. “Cyprus wasn’t small [back then]. And we’d get around, we’d travel – in the summer, in the mountains. There was so much life, so much going on…”
The obvious rejoinder, of course, is that what has changed isn’t Cyprus but her own life, in fact she admits as much (“I guess that kind of life still exists, for young people”). Jenny’s default expression is weary, stoical, a little bit tragic. She sits at her dining-room table, taking drags on a slim cigarette, facing a big Stass Paraskos on the wall – the house is full of art, some of it brought by her parents when they fled Palestine in 1948 – and we tend to talk in circles, hitting the same few landmarks: Evis, theatre, and the deterioration of everything. Life in Cyprus isn’t what it was. The standard of theatre in Cyprus has slipped alarmingly. Local TV used to be better. The Art Theatre in Athens – where she worked in her youth, when it was the best theatre in Greece – fell off precipitously after the death of its founder, the formidable Karolos Koun. Above all there’s her own life, once the queen of the local scene, now a widow stuck in this smallish apartment with her cats and her memories.
How does she spend her days?
“Not very pleasantly. I watch a lot of television, which is all I can do. I’m not – social.”
Did she used to be?
“In the old days, yes, when my husband was alive we had an intense social life. But now he’s gone…” She shrugs eloquently. “I don’t have children, or…” She tails off, as if to say ‘or anyone, really’.
There’s a sister, married, in Canada; they talk on the phone quite regularly. There’s some family here and a sole first cousin left in Jerusalem, where Jenny spent the first decade of her life (even after all these years, “I feel I’m Palestinian,” she says, “I don’t feel Cypriot”); and there’s also the old theatrical family of fellow actors, especially Annita Santorineou and Lenia Sorokou who are both among her best friends. Mostly, though, “my life is very solitary. At home, for the most part.”
Has she found any new hobbies in retirement?
“What hobby could I possibly start at this age? And without being able to see clearly?”
That’s the other big problem – and a major reason why she refused all offers to return to the stage, before Clytemnestra. Jenny suffers from macular degeneration, an age-related weakening of her vision that began a few years ago; there’s no cure, and the condition is likely to worsen. “I just hope I don’t get to the point of becoming totally blind,” she says gloomily. “I wouldn’t want to live, if – if it came to that”. The disease already blights her quality of life: she can no longer read (hence the hours of TV) and can’t go out alone, forcing her to stay in the flat – though it doesn’t sound like she’d want to go out anyway. Does she feel out of place in today’s Cyprus?
“Not out of place. I just don’t have any contact or relationship with it.”
Doesn’t she care?
“I’m not interested in the social life of Cyprus. And now, at my age…”
Age isn’t really so important, though.
“You don’t have much in common with people, let’s put it that way. I have my cats, and I love them very much.”
I ask for their names, and we hit a mini-crisis: Jenny gives me three of the names (Igor, Lucy and Avroulla) but can’t remember the fourth. Marios is enlisted, but he can’t remember either. Dora eventually supplies the name of the fourth cat (Pitsi-Pitsi, who’s also the oldest) and consoles the mortified Jenny: “You got blocked. It’s okay”. Memory does indeed play strange tricks sometimes – but it also occurs to me that she’s going onstage in a few nights, to deliver a half-hour monologue to a paying audience, so it’s not like she’s unable to remember things, or unable to see what she’s doing. What problems did she have during the production of the play? “No problems.”
So then, what’s preventing her from doing more theatre?
“Nothing’s preventing me.”
There’s a slight contradiction in Jenny Gaitanopoulou – and the clue, I suspect, comes in her description of herself as “a born actress”. It’s all she’s ever done, and all she ever wanted to do. Her grandmother in Palestine was also an actress, her mother an amateur actress (her dad, who died young, worked in insurance but loved the arts) – and Jenny too followed this tradition, performing from her teens until retirement, Beckett and Euripides and all points in between. She toured the world, from Epidaurus to South America, acting all the time; “I belong to that generation which produced good theatre in Cyprus,” she explains rather grandly. Is it too much to wonder if she may be acting now, just a little, burnishing a fitting final act to a famous life?
I don’t mean to suggest that she’s making things up, nor to diminish her grief or her health problems. Acting, after all, isn’t lying – indeed, it’s the opposite of lying. But an actor is also attuned to the poignant drama in everyday life. “There’s a hyper-sensitivity in actors,” she tells me. “Their needs are – different… Their lives aren’t pedestrian, like other people’s.” Jenny’s life, even in these twilight years, isn’t pedestrian; even her unhappiness is epic, an ailing Miss Haversham struggling with enforced isolation, shored up by nostalgia for the old days – and the glorious redemption, now, of one final triumph.
Will this really be her last hurrah? Hard to say, of course – but I get the impression it won’t be, that her tentative comeback in Klytaimnistra may eventually lead to more theatre (or perhaps TV and film, which isn’t as physically taxing). There’s no logical reason to think so, except that acting has been Jenny Gaitanopoulou’s life; even the one big exception to that rule – her lifelong relationship with Evis – was inextricably tied to acting. Why would she abandon it for good, especially now with Evis gone? “There’s a magic to the theatre. There’s a magic to art in general, isn’t there?” she says – then frowns, spotting the potential cliché: “I don’t mean romantic. I don’t care about that stuff”.
So then what?
“Something substantial,” she explains after a pause. “Something that makes you a better person”. I recall that she laughed when I asked if she has a ‘dark side’ that she’s able to access onstage; of course not, she replied, she’s just like everybody else. She’s forever at pains to put herself down – an employee, a humble student – yet she also tells me that her life has been full and intense. There’s no contradiction there: life itself is prosaic, and perhaps disappointing – yet theatre makes up for that, offering the fullness and intensity denied by mundane existence. It can make you a better person.
Take, for instance, her Edward Albee story, Albee being the world-famous playwright probably best known for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. When Jenny was in high school, her father – wanting her to improve her English, the better to study in the UK (a dream cut short by his own early death) – urged her to find some pen pals, preferably people with her own interests. She signed up with an arts magazine and received several replies from like-minded youngsters in Britain and America, interested in corresponding with a teenage Palestinian-Cypriot girl in those pre-internet days. One of those pen pals, rather incredibly, was the young, still-unknown Albee. He and Jenny exchanged letters for a while, then she left school and they lost touch – at least till she saw a published play in an Athens bookshop, years later, and recognised the name of her old correspondent.
Life couldn’t find a satisfying ending to this story. Jenny was too shy to contact Albee, even when he visited Greece to attend a production of one of his plays. Finally she plucked up the courage to call him in the US, but a woman (presumably a nurse) answered the phone and said he was sick, and to call back tomorrow; the next day, when Jenny called again, the woman informed her that he’d died. Life, as so often, was disappointing – but the theatre stepped in to offer closure: one of Jenny’s final roles, and greatest triumphs, during her time at Thoc was a much-liked production of Albee’s Three Tall Women, allowing her to briefly reunite with her childhood friend on a higher plane. “Art is a beautiful thing,” muses the elderly woman in the smallish flat – and her words seem to float above the talk of nameless cats and failing bodies, even above the clanking mechanical racket emanating from the third or fourth floor.