In a dynamic actor and director THEO PANAYIDES meets someone who wishes everyone in Cyprus would ‘move their ass’, while his own hobbies, and child, serve to calm him down
We open with a mini-crisis. A certificate has been wrenched rather violently from the living-room wall, and the hook on the back has fallen off. Fortunately it’s not a real certificate, or indeed a real living-room wall – just part of the set for a play called Mitad y Mitad (translating as ‘Fifty-Fifty’, which is how the inheritance in the play is to be divided), being staged at Theatro Hora in Nicosia and directed by Panayiotis Larkou. It’s a small production, much smaller than, for instance, The Godson, which Panayiotis directed at Thoc (the Cyprus Theatre Organisation) this summer; he even had to help paint the set, for the first time in years. He doesn’t mind, in fact he loves it; it reminds him of the old days in Athens, when he worked seven days a week for five years – 2003 till the summer of 2008 – then took two weeks off and didn’t know what to do with himself.
If this were a play, we’d be starting to supply exposition round about now, giving our hero a back-story – yet in fact Panayiotis’ back-story is quite straightforward. He was born in Limassol in 1980, to a family that had nothing to do with theatre – his dad was a factory mechanic at wine company Loel; his mum worked in local government – yet he’s never done anything but theatre, nor does he have a day-job like many of his colleagues. He’s best-known as an actor, with occasional forays into TV and movies, but increasingly works as a director, which was always his preferred role anyway – though audience members sometimes seem confused about the process. “What are you talking about? I saw that play twice, and I never saw you!” cried a random fan in a supermarket a couple of weeks ago, baffled to be told he directed The Godson.
Maybe it’s because he makes such a plausible actor – not just onstage but also off, fitting the perception of how an actor should look and behave. He’s sitting outside on the pavement when I arrive on a Sunday morning, and gets up to greet me: smiling, bushy-bearded, bespectacled, bald as an egg, suntanned to a nut-brown (he’s a keen scuba diver), studded with nose-rings and earrings; above all, a tremendous talker. “I could talk all day!” he says airily. He makes me a double skettos (but doesn’t partake, having already had three coffees this morning), and I apologise for bringing him out on a Sunday: it’s fine, he assures me, “there are no office hours, or days off, in this business”. Besides, he has to fix the certificate and put it back on the wall in time for tonight’s performance.
He seems, in a word, dynamic. Easy to believe that he never lets up, professionally and otherwise. “Theatre is an art,” says Panayiotis, with deceptive casualness. “It’s not something you can just pick up and put down. It’s constant – 24-hour, in fact. You can’t leave your work at work: it comes home with you, sits in the car beside you, goes like this” – he taps himself on the shoulder – “while you’re sleeping. Theatre work is something you have on the pillow beside you, it sleeps with you – then at night it wakes you up, nags at you, starts complaining. ‘You weren’t very good today! What went wrong?’.” Just as well that his wife is also an actor, Vasiliki Kypraiou (who’s Greek, even though her surname means ‘Cypriot’; apparently her grandfather was a merchant from Asia Minor who did business in Cyprus). They met in Athens in 2007, having come to the same bar to unwind after their respective performances; they got married a few months later, clearly having realised how rare it is to find someone who understands you in this business.
Is he very hyper? “When I’m working, yes. When I’m at home, you can put me in a corner with a book and I’ll stay there till morning.” Books were important in his childhood, his parents (despite their rather mundane jobs) being big on literature, and culture in general; his grandpa took him to a bookshop every Saturday and had him buy a book of his choice, not necessarily age-appropriate. There’s a shy bookish side to Panayiotis, sometimes edging past his vibrant, controlling side (to be a director is to be a control freak, let’s just admit it). Significantly, all his favourite pursuits – theatre excepted – are things that “calm me down”, like a brief respite from his caffeinated public self.
Scuba diving is one such pursuit. “The silence is incredible,” he tells me; you emerge from the depths and it feels like your system’s been reset, you’ve “cleared out the RAM”. Parenthood is another – he and Vasiliki have a five-year-old daughter – not just life-changing but a source of perspective; problems at work that might’ve driven him wild five years ago now subside when he gets home. Cooking also calms him down: “It gives me a control I don’t get at work. If I say to an actor ‘Stand over there’ he’ll be like ‘I don’t want to be over there’ – but if I say to a cucumber ‘Stand still so I can cut you’ it’s going to get cut, no back-talk!”. We laugh – though I also recall what he said a little earlier, about the way he directs, his attention to detail and the standards he expects from his actors; “I think I’m considered quite demanding”.
Most intriguing is perhaps his fondness for the lowbrow and tacky. He loves listening to sports radio (despite having zero interest in sports), the hilarious indignation of football fans calling in to rant, at length, about this or that footballing injustice – then, at two a.m. or thereabouts (he doesn’t sleep much), he’ll sit down to watch trashy B-movies on TV. What’s relaxing, I suspect, is the way such things absolve him from the quest for perfection; the movies are bad, the fans’ indignation is pointless. He can’t watch The Godfather, admits Panayiotis – he starts getting hyper-aware of what the actors and director are doing, and has to turn it off after 10 minutes – but trash can be enjoyed unselfconsciously. For a man who expends so much effort in his own work, it’s amusing to see effort being expended on something so patently unworthy. It calms him down.
It wouldn’t do to describe Panayiotis Larkou’s energy as dark. He’s beyond charming, at least in interview mode: chatty, funny, articulate. But he’s quite intense, as already mentioned, at work – and there’s also the fact that all this striving, all this intensity, goes on an artform that’s ephemeral by definition, in a market that’s too small to support it. He doesn’t mind the transience of theatre, he insists – the fact that, unlike books or films, no tangible artefact remains; “When it’s done, it’s over” – if anything that’s part of the charm, but the audience here is so small. There are only about 6,000 customers for professional theatre, and that includes everyone, even those who’ll go once a year because their nephew’s in a play or a TV star is here from Greece. Simply put, theatre in Cyprus couldn’t exist without state funding – and then there’s Cyprus itself, the country of his birth where, nonetheless, “I’m still adjusting”.
He and Vasiliki came in 2010, specifically to have a child in a more congenial environment than crisis-hit Athens. The experiment has been a success, at least in that sense – but “a lot of things bother me”. It bothers him, both as an atheist and a parent, that his daughter had to attend the annual ‘sanctification’ ceremony at her kindergarten (she’s not going, he told the school flatly). It bothers him that “we make things difficult for creative people generally” – not just theatre people but painters, dancers, filmmakers; indeed, he notes sadly, “cinema can’t exist in Cyprus at all”.
They all need support, says Panayiotis, warming to his theme, “and not just financial support. That’s the big problem – that we live in a society which doesn’t invest spiritually in anything. Zero, nothing!” Our education system “turns out people to be teachers, doctors, lawyers and accountants”; it doesn’t even instil the right to experience creative work, let alone the right to create it – “and so you grow up being taught that either things have monetary value, or they have no value at all… And we’ve filled up a country with college degrees and lots of nice cars, which we drive around all over the place, and – and we don’t even walk in our city, that’s the most basic thing.
“I mean seriously, never mind going to the theatre: when someone hasn’t even walked in Nicosia, and I know it better than them [despite being from Limassol], because I walk – well, what kind of citizen are you? In fact, what kind of person are you? When your life is wearing a tie in the morning, then putting on your shorts in the afternoon and sitting in front of the telly, then a nicer tie on Saturday so you can go to a wedding, then on Monday it all starts again – you tell me, what kind of life are you living?”. We like to sell Cyprus as an all-in-one tourist product, notes Panayiotis wryly, a place where you go to the beach in the morning and the mountains in the afternoon, yet we ourselves mostly prefer to stay on the sofa. ‘I can’t be bothered’ is the Cypriot way – “and that same mentality of ‘I can’t be bothered’ applies to the theatre too”. He shakes his head, exasperated: “Move your ass!” he urges his fellow countrymen, the dynamic person’s goad to the less dynamic.
Just how angry is he? Hard to tell; his impatience seems real, yet I don’t get a sense that he’s ruled by it. Just how different is he? “I never felt different from others,” he insists when I ask about adolescence – yet his sense of humour, for instance, isn’t especially Cypriot, or even Greek. “When he grows up, he wants to be a printer repairman from Belgium,” jokes his bio on the Thoc website, a line that’s pure Monty Python; his dog is called Baldrick, after the hapless sidekick in Blackadder, and he’s quoted Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in another interview. He tells me a rather remarkable story of bumping into an old high-school classmate after many years: “Aren’t you gay?” she asked, surprised. “No,” he replied, even more surprised. “We all thought you were gay,” she explained; after all, “you were in the choir, in the orchestra, in the drama society, and you hung out with X, Y and Z”, she added, naming mutual friends. “I had no idea!” Panayiotis tells me, laughing – no idea what his classmates thought, no idea even that the friends in question were gay.
What’s the point of that story? Maybe that – like most truly original people – he’s not always conscious of his own originality. Others may see someone exotic, someone who looks a bit odd, someone with unorthodox ideas perhaps – but Panayiotis Larkou just sees Panayiotis Larkou, with his quirks and his work ethic and his fondness for trash TV. Paradoxically, his strong sense of self is also a lack of self-consciousness.
He does have a strong sense of self. Directing, even more than acting, makes that imperative. He does his own thing and believes in living life “for ourselves”, not our friends or our parents; even scuba diving is a solitary, self-reliant pursuit. You seem to have a great deal of confidence, I note. “It’s true, I do,” he agrees merrily. “And again, it’s because of my upbringing. I was raised to be confident. I was the first boy in the family – my grandpa only had girls, I was the first grandchild. And suddenly it was like, the Pope has arrived!”
Panayiotis laughs, then grows serious: “I’m okay with it. I know what my problems are. There are things about my body I don’t like, and things about my personality I don’t like – and I have absolutely no intention of changing them! Because I’m – well, I’m me”. He tries to stay true to his vision, tries to do theatre “the way it’s supposed to be done”; he tries to connect, getting people to stir from their sofas. He talks a blue streak, doesn’t sleep much, works relentlessly at his rather quixotic profession, tries to keep himself fresh even with the Big 4-0 coming up in July. And he also has to find a new hook, and stick this certificate back on the wall.