ASTORIA – The Pancyprian Association Cultural Division presented the poetic monologue Farewell by Yannis Ritsos at the Pancyprian Center in Astoria with Phytos Stratis as Grigoris Afxentiou under the direction of Ioanna Katsarou. This year marks the 60th anniversary of Afxentiou’s ultimate sacrifice and of the writing of the poem.
Yannis Ritsos wrote this poetic monologue as a tribute to the Battle of Macheras, the outcome of which was the death of Grigoris Afxentiou, EOKA’s second in command, and the pre-eminent hero of the struggle to rid Cyprus of British colonial rule and unite the island with Greece.
Entering the performance space, the set design immediately struck the audience as something more than your average theatrical experience. The dark cave with dirt and tree branches strewn throughout the space creates an immersive aspect that brings the audience directly into communion with Afxentiou, as portrayed by the talented Stratis. The smell of the dirt reminds one of a newly dug grave, adding to the visceral quality of the performance.
The poem, written in the same month as Afxentiou’s sacrifice, reveals the hero’s ecstatic state of mind during 10 hours under siege in his hideout as he meditates on his life and on his decision to die. It is shocking to consider that during those 10 hours fighting, wounded, in pain, Afxentiou must have considered again and again giving himself up, imagined living and returning to his home and family, and yet he would not be deflected by love of life and instead remained committed to his own death.
O Apoheretismos (The Farewell) is subtitled the Last Hours of Grigoris Afxentiou in the Burning Cave. The harrowing experience is shared with the audience by Stratis as Afxentiou as he struggles with his mortality and the devastating fact that he wants to live. Only 29 years old at the time of his death, Afxentiou was full of life, a born leader of men recognized by EOKA leader General Georgios Grivas who promoted him to second in command. Stratis brings Afxentiou to life vividly and movingly.
Performing this poetic monologue, essentially a one-man show, is a difficult task, but Stratis proves more than equal to it. His intensity never wanes throughout the performance while the rhythm of his vocal delivery conveys a well of emotion as he speaks the lines from Ritsos’ iconic poem. On his own, he holds the audience’s attention and brings them along on his final journey with precise timing and profound sensitivity.
Under Katsarou’s direction, the performance is well-paced and striking, highlighted by the visuals projected on the wall, music, and sound effects heightening the theatrical experience. The intimate space of the cave with all its suggestion and symbolism from ancient times and onward offers an impressive backdrop for the imagination as well as the important historical truth of Afxentiou’s heroic sacrifice.
The video is incorporated into the performance seamlessly, giving the audience the historical facts with stark images of war, the fighting men of EOKA, and then the beautiful scenery of Cyprus that emphasizes what Afxentiou, and so many others, fought and died for. The high quality of the entire production impressed many audience members.
The poignancy of Stratis’ portrayal brought many to tears. The moment Afxentiou talks about his mother was particularly moving, knowing that he would never see her again in this life. The audience gave a standing ovation at the conclusion of the performance.
Afxentiou’s heroic death will never be forgotten, immortalized in Ritsos’ poem which reminds us of the tremendous spirit and humanity of the man who embodied the ideals of Hellenism and sacrificed his life for freedom and for Cyprus.
The Cast and Crew: Grigoris Afxentiou- Phytos Stratis, Director & Set Designer- Ioanna Katsarou, Video- Kyriakos Pishoftas, Graphic designer- Tharivol Productions, Music selection- Ioanna Katsarou, Production- Phytos Stratis.