A veteran takes on a legend

Actress Nena Menti is the talk of the town. Despite her years-long success in theater and television, her performance as Eftychia Papagiannopoulou in the one-act play of the same title has been an unprecedented success. Initially it was staged only on Mondays and Tuesdays at the Ilissia Theater, but has now reached four performances a week, and these too are sold out almost every night. Menti’s transformation, from the look in her eyes to the way she holds the cigarette, gives the impression that she really becomes rembetika diva Eftychia. «The whole thing was Petros Zoulias’s idea,» says the veteran actress. «It immediately appealed to me because I have been a great fan of rembetika from early on, contrary to my parents’s culture. My father only wanted Beethoven, Hadjidakis and Theodorakis playing at home, but I listened to Kazantzidis and I liked that world. I knew Eftychia from her lyrics. I saw her as an eccentric woman, with all her anarchism, her uncompromising spirit and her passion for cards, which I also shared when I was young, before I had a child. I felt a certain affinity with her. I wanted to be like her, but circumstances didn’t allow this. So in a way, it was as if I had been preparing for this moment for a long time and that is why it comes out so naturally on stage.» Did you participate in the writing of the monologue? I didn’t and I would like to make something clear: this monologue is not a compilation of extracts, it is Petros’s (Zoulias) work. It contains some excerpts from the book by Rea Manelli, Eftychia’s grand-daughter, but it is absolutely his own text. Before he wrote it, we naturally read everything that has been written about her and talked about what we wanted, which was something simple, positive and truthful. Did the mannerisms you use in your performance come spontaneously or did you research them? They are my own experiences, things that I have and I hang on to. That doesn’t mean though that the way I act on stage reflects my own life. How do you feel when the audience stands up to applaud at the end? It makes me feel like I gave birth to a second child, now, at my age. It is like I am producing something real. To what do you attribute the play’s success? It is its truthfulness that moves me. It is about real life. It brings back images of a way of living that no longer exists, a lost neighborhood, a world that has changed. The performance is not just about Eftychia, it is also my and Petros’s relationship with these people. Why did «these people» have much more joie de vivre than we do, although they experienced tragedies? People back then had different needs, collective ones, not individual ones. It came down to the basics; many didn’t even have food to eat. These needs, war and hardship made them want to live life. That is something I relate to. When I start feeling depressed, I get up and leave the house. I look for friends to go for a drink, I go to the movies on my own, I do something. Other than satisfaction, what other feelings has this enthusiastic response evoked in you? I am very optimistic about the future. I don’t dream of running a theater company, I don’t want that, but I would like to work with certain people who have already made some suggestions. You take a risk, but when you do something from your heart, it touches people. When we started out with Eftychia, I didn’t think many people would show up but it ended up being just the opposite. Is this the «role of your life»? I’m not sure. I want to do other things, authentic things and different from the role of Eftychia. I think I can do it. I don’t want to prove that I can do everything, I just want to do things that I like and carry the audience with me. Have you felt left out of the loop? I have never felt that, why should I? I am very contented. What I do miss is the opportunity to get together with my colleagues and to create something together. That is one thing I remember from when I was younger; work that came out of teamwork. You have a reputation for having a great sense of humor, but also being a bit critical of others. How do you respond to this? It is true and I can also be a bit sour at times. But I am strict with myself too and I make fun of myself a lot. What is your relationship with television? Television helped me to breathe financially. I didn’t feel insecure, because I made a living playing cards. Unlike Eftychia who was a victim, I was more of a victimizer, because you can play cards professionally. Yet television offered me financial ease and helped my work in theater – I had so many proposals I didn’t know what to choose. After 42 years in the theater, do you still love it the same way? I love it even more. If I didn’t work there I would be the unhappiest person in the world. I was a very difficult person and theater put me in my place lots of times. Do you yearn to play specific roles? No, and I never did. Some people tell me that I should play Brecht’s «Mother Courage.» I don’t know what will happen but I am optimistic. Even in the hardest times, I always believed something good would happen. What would Papagiannopoulou say if she saw you as Eftychia? She would say what her daughter and grandson say. They tell me that this is the best thing that could happen to preserve her memory.