In a man who has directed over 40 plays, and starred in scores more, THEO PANAYIDES meets someone who says his greatest talent is being organised. To be seen next as the Pope, he is also stern and principled
Plays, and the details of their staging, punctuate the life of Varnavas Kyriazis. Past productions – theatre productions, that is; he’s a man of the theatre, among the most prominent in Cyprus, though he’s also dabbled in film and TV – are the landmarks he uses in recalling his life, as we sit outside in the ground-floor café of the Leventis Art Gallery in Nicosia.
The Diary of Anne Frank at Anemona Theatre last year, for instance, one of the relatively few cases where he both directed and acted (a tricky process, since you have to monitor other performances while remaining focused on your own). Big and Little by Botho Strauss, at the Art Theatre in Athens circa 1981, the play in which he was starring when a gentleman named Evis Gavrielides visited him backstage – representing the Cyprus Theatre Organisation (Thoc), a body of whose existence Varnavas was only dimly aware – and persuaded him to come back to Cyprus.
Red (2015) and Bacon/Freud (2017), both with Alpha Square directed by Andreas Araouzos, two of the rare occasions when he feels he “transcended” himself onstage. And of course there’s The Pope by Anthony McCarten (filmed last year as The Two Popes), also with Alpha Square – the play that’s due to premiere at Theatro Dentro a few days after our interview (actually on September 19), and which he’ll actually be going upstairs to rehearse as soon as we’ve finished chatting.
There are many productions, many landmarks. Varnavas estimates he’s directed 40 plays, and acted in more than 120, over the course of a 45-year career. He’s also taught extensively, given seminars, served on committees, and also did a term (2007-12) as director of Thoc, a job – as he puts it – where you’re guaranteed to be constantly attacked from all sides. It’s rare to find an actor who can also organise other actors, let alone run a public body with a budget of millions of euros. Actors tend to be sponges and vessels, it comes with the territory – but his own authority (and talent) was apparent early on. He tells a story from 1975, when he’d just started studying at the Art Theatre in Athens. Its director, the legendary Karolos Koun, picked 23-year-old Varnavas to be among the handful of students who’d also be taking part in productions. The pay was 2,800 drachmas – but Varnavas was already married with a child (Ermina, born in 1974), working every day at a tyre factory in addition to his studies and making 5,600 drachmas; he couldn’t give up his factory job for half the pay, he told Koun regretfully. The director thought about it, then came back with a remarkable offer: not only would the young man receive the full 5,600 drachmas, but he wouldn’t have to pay any more school fees and could study for free until he graduated. Not a bad deal for a young unknown.
He’s now 68, riding up to the café on his motorbike (to beat the traffic), speaking softly in a husky, honeyed voice one can easily imagine being projected to fill an entire auditorium. His default expression is anxious though his smile, when it comes, is delightful; the first few photos we take are too serious, so I ask him to relax a little – and it doesn’t look like he’s doing anything different but in fact, when I look at the photos, it’s clear he’s added a smidge of inner lightness. He’s impressively in control of himself, in fact he’s impressive in general. “Discipline, I believe, is the most important thing in theatre,” he says, adding that his greatest talent is perhaps for being organised: “I don’t panic easily.”
Looking back, perhaps I should’ve asked something indiscreet, just to see his reaction – about his personal life, for instance (he’s been married three times, though the first two were short-lived; he’s been with his third wife, actress Marina Maleni, for over 20 years). I do ask something mildly impertinent, when I mention that Thoc seems (to me) quite a dysfunctional place, and Varnavas’ eyes positively flash with righteous anger: “We find it very easy to reject, and to doubt things,” he retorts (‘we’ being Cypriots in general). “I’m not one of those who would call Thoc dysfunctional… Thoc was, is and always will be the state theatre of Cyprus. Anyone who doesn’t treat it as such, in my opinion, is doing incalculable damage”. His indignation is impressive – though partly, I suspect, a performance, an actor ‘doing’ high dudgeon (which is not to say he doesn’t believe every word he says). It’ll take more than a maladroit question to derail his composure.
What’s he actually like, behind the splendid façade? “He’s hard to figure out” are the opening words in an excellent long interview by Eleni Xenou dating from just before he took over at Thoc (you can find it, in Greek, at elenixenou.com). It may – or may not – be significant that Varnavas’ pastimes are rather solitary, the habits of a self-sufficient person. The lockdown, and Covid in general, has of course been a disaster for theatre folk – but he didn’t have a bad time, on a purely personal level. He translated four plays, he recalls, from English to Greek (it’s something he does for his own enjoyment, though also potentially to stage them someday), and also went for long walks, which is one of his favourite ways to relax.
“When I start to walk, I walk for at least an hour. At least! It might be an hour and a half, two hours, maybe two and a half”. He walks in parks or in Nature, and “I converse with myself while I’m walking, I think about things. I love walking. And I love the sea as well”. Nature and the sea are both vast, immeasurable backdrops, of course; one could even call them transcendent – which is also how he describes “that glorious feeling of complete liberation” during a performance, “when you feel like you’re not onstage but floating in the air, transcending yourself”.
Can an actor make that happen at will?
He shakes his head sadly: “No, it’s down to circumstances”. It’s a kind of alchemy, when you go beyond the role into “a more spiritual layer of the role, let’s say”. There’s indeed a spiritual aspect to Varnavas, with his faith in instinct (more on this later) and almost priestly devotion to acting as a vocation – and of course one shouldn’t muddle the actor with the role, but it’s probably not entirely random that Araouzos cast him as Pope Benedict XVI in the play, a man who (unlike his successor, the future Pope Francis, played by Fotis Apostolides) believes in an immutable God as an ‘axis mundi’, a central tenet in the world. I assume Varnavas can play anything (the role he always wanted to play, he says – the one that got away – is Richard III), but he does seem to fit this kind of stern, principled man; he might seem a little miscast as a weakling or a libertine.
His father was also stern and principled, a truant officer in Famagusta back in the day. “He had a reputation,” says his son. “The schoolkids sang a song about Kyriazis, I don’t remember it now but they did.” There were five brothers, plus two much older half-siblings from his mother’s first marriage (a pattern he’s unconsciously copied in his own life, his three kids with Maleni being two decades younger than Ermina; he actually has a daughter who’s younger than his granddaughter). The family weren’t rich; young Varnavas went to work from the age of 13 – serving in a coffee shop, washing cars at a petrol station, working as an errand boy in a printing press from five to 11pm. “When the time came to study,” he recalls, “I told my dad, ‘I’d like to go and study’. ‘There’s the door, son,’ he replied, ‘off you go’. And so I did. I opened the door, I left. I went to Athens, and I got a job on the very first day.”
He completed three years of a History and Archaeology degree before the lure of theatre became too irresistible – then came the Karolos Koun story at the Art Theatre, then the backstage visit by Evis Gavrielides, the decision to relocate (mainly for financial reasons, though his marriage was breaking down too) and, with the brief exception of lockdown, he’s been gainfully employed ever since. “Touch wood, ever since 1981 I’ve been working in the theatre every day without fail,” he admits. “I’ve never stopped – whether as an actor or director, or as the head of the Organisation, I’ve never stopped working. Every day, every day.”
Two questions may arise at this point. First, what does he have that’s so special, to make him so perpetually in-demand? And second, why did a poor boy from a plainly non-showbiz family get into this racket in the first place? The first question seems more straightforward, but he shrugs it off; it’s not for him to say, he demurs (though a certain seriousness may have something to do with it: “I don’t gossip, I’m focused on my work”). The second seems unanswerable – yet in fact Varnavas has an answer: “It was instinct that made me want to become an actor,” he replies, ‘instinct’ being a variable he happily accepts, even if he can’t quite explain it. “When people say that an actor is talented, I believe [it means] they have a stronger instinct, in one way or another.” It’s what allows him to get under the skin of a role – or, as director, to gauge a fellow actor’s performance. Maybe it’s a synonym for creative spark, the mysterious energy that descends from some distant realm, given time and encouragement. In any case, after all these years it’s become second nature: he’s a little worried about The Pope, he admits, he doesn’t feel he’s quite ready yet – “but I’ll fill the gaps over the next few days,” he adds confidently.
He’s been busy, post-lockdown. In the past month, as well as rehearsing for The Pope, he’s directed Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman at Anemone (his main creative conceit being to treat this edgy contemporary drama as a mediaeval fairytale) and overseen the last few performances (also as director) of Aristophanes’ The Acharnians at Thoc. Cyprus will always be small, the energy invested in plays seldom commensurate with the exposure they get – yet theatre has mostly been good to him, maybe because he’s accepted its mystery (the aforementioned “instinct”) while also treating it as a job of work, whether learning lines or staying up all night studying the law on public buildings (he was instrumental in the building of Thoc’s new theatre). And of course – always! – the show must go on. “When my late father died, we buried him at 4pm and at 8.30 I had a performance,” he recalls. “In a comedy, too!” Discipline, as already noted, is important in theatre.
“I’m not one of those artists who believe they can change the world,” says Varnavas. He has a worldview, to be sure. “There is no worse species on the planet than humans,” he asserts portentously, apropos of nothing. We may be the smartest, most successful species – but we’re also “the most evil, the greediest, the most criminal, the most beholden to capital”. He believes (though he claims to be apolitical) that capitalism will soon be going the way of Communism, meanwhile lamenting that the world has never changed, and never will. It’s a slightly unexpected rant – yet it also fits his persona, the old lion looking at the world from a certain jaundiced distance, clinging to his art as the one true faith in a landscape of fools and knaves. His worldview is almost too perfect, leaving humanity unchangeable – how arrogant it’d be to imagine otherwise – yet perhaps improvable, through the magic of theatre.
“My eye was always on theatre. My life just went on in parallel,” is one of the choice quotes from that Eleni Xenou interview. Like the Pope in The Pope, he’s devoted himself to an ‘axis mundi’ – a methodical, dedicated, fundamentally (perhaps) rather solitary man who found his vocation, and patiently stuck to it. “You know,” sighs Varnavas, “the stage, the theatre, is a little door. You put in the key, you open it, you go in, you do what you have to do, you get out, you close the door and you go home”. I leave him to open the door, yet again, to his private sanctuary – and prepare for another production, another small landmark to remember his life by.