By James Bartholomew
On March 3, 1957, British armed forces poured gasoline into the hideout of Greek Cypriot guerilla fighter Grigoris Afxentiou, burning him alive and ending his campaign of insurrection against the British rule of his native Cyprus. A Protectorate of the English crown since 1878, and under the dominion of the Ottoman Empire for centuries before that, the island nation was deprived of true independence for generations.
It was men like Afxentiou who led the charge for freedom throughout the 1950s. He was among the scores of casualties in a conflagration that, at the time of his death, was still years away from resolution. And so, with the location of his hideout betrayed to the enemy who surrounds him, Afxentiou spends his final hours singlehandedly holding off British troops, until they finally light the match and seal the martyr’s fate.
Presented at the United Solo Theatre Festival this season, this heroic story of sacrifice serves as the background for “The Farewell,” the sometimes horrifying and sometimes beautiful story of Afxentiou’s last ten hours on earth, performed by Phyto Stratis and based on the poetry of Yannis Ritsos. Although deeply rooted in the nation’s history, “The Farewell” doesn’t dwell on the political, instead focusing on the nature of sacrifice, the virtues of selflessness, and the duty of a soldier to his country.
The show sees Afxentiou contemplating his fate as he waits for death. It’s one thing to die in a flash of momentary heroics, but to resign oneself to die almost half a day before the proverbial curtain falls is another thing entirely. As Afxentiou’s entombment goes on, he begins to question his decision and even the validity of his cause, all the while knowing that his death is already assured. There’s a fatalistic dread that permeates “The Farewell,” to be sure, but there is also a life-affirming humanism to the piece, as Afxentiou, moments before death, realizes what it means to be alive. As the guerilla himself says, “Life is beautiful, but now, there is no time for such a thing.”
That gorgeous turn of phrase and others like it come from the pen of legendary Greek poet Yannis Ritsos, who wrote “The Farewell” as a poetic monologue shortly after Afxentiou’s death in 1957. His text, moving in its own right, is given a second life in Stratis’ performance, as memorizing as it is haunting. Stratis alternates between resignation, disbelief, anger and terror as he paces aimlessly around his cavernous hideout, knowing that any moment might be his last.
Throughout the show’s sixty minutes, one tenth of Afxentiou’s actual confinement, Ritsos’ powerful verse is accompanied by occasional black-and-white projections of still images depicting the soldier’s memories and dreams of a world without war. The monochrome images envelop Stratis in a smoky haze that covers his face like ash – foreshadowing for the pensive martyr’s imminent end.
Stratis depicts his subject’s imprisonment as a slow decent towards madness, and his performance takes him to truly dark places as he waits in the darkness for his death. And while the intensity of that performance keeps the show moving at a mostly even pace, there are moments when the loftiness of Ritsos’ prose jars slightly with the reality of Afxentiou’s situation. The dissonance is not entirely unwelcome, and doesn’t hold “The Farewell” back from being the commanding powerhouse it sets out to be.
Stratis’ Afxentiou grounds the piece in the brutal reality of war and reminds his audience of the cruelly exorbitant price of freedom. There is no shortage of martyrs in any conflict, but that doesn’t make those sacrifices any less tragic or worth honoring. In the case of Grigoris Afxentiou, his sacrifice is remembered and celebrated through “The Farewell” – a poignant and powerful last testament to one of Cyprus’ most fearless and formidable sons.
Performed by Phyto Stratis
Oct. 3 at 7:30pm
Director and Set Designer: Ioanna Katsarou
Assistant Director: Theodore Petropoulos
Soundtrack: Demetris Michael
Original Music: Phyto Stratis
Original Poetry: Yannis Ritsos
Show Image by Anthoula Lelekidis, courtesy of the production
United Solo 2018
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
JAMES BARTHOLOMEW is a writer and musician living in New York City. He is an administrator of the Fordham University Theatre Program and an avid lover of the arts.