Something unique and almost incredible happened at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts last Friday – there was a production of a play based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. The play is He Who Must Die and it is an adaptation by Michael Antonakes of Kazantzakis’ 1948 novel Christ Recrucified, better known as The Greek Passion.
I make no secret of my excitement about seeing a play by Kazantzakis on stage, even an adaptation of one of his great novels. The production, directed by Andrea Emmerton, is done almost entirely by amateur actors, has numerous strengths and displays some of the inevitable weaknesses of that acting pool.
Antonakes has shaped a marvellous play from the complex novel. He takes the two intertwined stories that happen in a fictional Turkish-occupied Greek village in Asia Minor in 1923 to create a dramatic situation that leads to a catastrophic climax with the inevitability of Greek tragedy.
The village elders of Lykovrissi choose four men to enact the Passion of Christ. A simple villager named Manolios (John Tokatlidis) is chosen to play Christ. Kostantes (Tom Anastasios Haralambidis) is to play St. Peter and Michalis (Justin Borrow) to play St. John. Panayotaros (Bill Chambers) is to play Judas Iscariot while Katerina (Katerina Taxia), the village slut, plays Mary Magdalene. These five are to prepare for a performance of the Passion at Easter.
The other plot strand concerns arrival of some refugees from another village who seek the help of the inhabitants of Lykovrissi. The two groups clash with the people of Lykovrissi throwing out the refugees. The Christ-playing and Christ-like Manolios takes the side of the refugee and the tragedy develops from there.
The play, as the title makes clear, is deeply religious and especially moral. It takes us back to the beginning of Christianity with reference not only to the life of Christ but also to the lives of the first Christians who lived in the catacombs. The life of the 20th century actors in the Passion play, the villagers and the refugees have parallels with the life of Christ far more intimate than a simple re-enactment of the Crucifixion.
The central figure of the play is the Christ-figure Manolios. Tokatlidis plays Manolios as a simple man who displays decency, faith, even fervour without being sanctimonious. A well-balanced performance that does justice to the character.
Capetan Fortounas is a likeable and sensible former sailor and member of the Village Council. Peter Shipston exudes Fortounas’s humanity, decency and humour. Fortounas is no great churchgoer, it seems, but when Manolios is excommunicated, he is the only one that would light a candle for him.
Bill Chambers’ Judas seethes with violence and wildness as becomes the greatest betrayer in history. The two priests play major roles in the play. The bad priest Father Grigoris played by Pat Elia was unconvincing. He was clean-shaven with short hair and that was the first mistake made by Emmerton. The visual incongruity was accentuated by weak acting. This Father Grigoris was neither a firebrand zealot nor a cunning cleric. He was low-keyed, almost business-like most of the time and his evil was more to be assumed than seen and felt.
Father Fotis, the good priest and leader of the refugees was more convincing physically but again a better beard and longer hair would have enhanced his priestly appearance. Tim Nasiopoulos looked quite the rebel and was good in the role.
Steve Kastoras as Archon Patriarcheas was more petulant than strong. He should be a more powerful character than Emmerton allows him to be. In fact, there is no commanding or domineering character in the production at all.
Justin Barrow’s Michalis was decent and devout and Haralambidis’s Kostantes was hen-pecked and comical.
Special mention is deserved by mezzo soprano Arianna Chris who was dressed in a beautiful, traditional costume (most of the others wore peasant outfits) and sang a lovely “Christos Anesti.” This is the Resurrection Hymn that one usually hears sung in blissful cacophony by the mass of people in the church parking lot on Easter Sunday.
Emmerton quite properly allowed all of the actors to speak in their natural Ontario accents. Most of the actors are non-Greek and you could tell who they were from the way they accented Greek names. The only one who spoke with a pronounced accent was Sal Aquila as the Turkish Agha. This Turkish overlord was more of a blusterer than a domineering conqueror.
The use of microphones has become commonplace in the production of musicals and Emmerton uses them in this production as well. The 631-seat Richmond Hill Centre seems small enough to make the use of mikes unnecessary but one must assume that some of the actors could not project their voices to the back of the theatre.
The advantage of the use of mikes is that everyone can be heard clearly. The disadvantage is that all voices come from a central speaker and you lose perspective of who is speaking. The mikes add a note of artificiality to the performance that takes away from the feel of live theatre.
Whatever the criticisms, this was a significant production and a reminder that Kazantzakis’s work for the theatre has been almost completely ignored. Antonakes’s successful adaptation is highly producible and one can only hope that a professional company will stage it. If the Stratford Shakespeare Festival can stage Austen, Dostoyevsky, Dumas and Robertson Davies, surely it can do the same for Kazantzakis.
He Who Must Die by Michael Antonakes based on The Greek Passion by Nikos Kazantzakis was performed six times between January 4 and 6, 2013 at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Preforming Arts, 10268 Yonge St. Richmond Hill, Ont. For more information go to http://www.HeWhoMustDie.com/ or 905-787-8811