Mrs Protopsalti’s flawless daughter

This winter’s theater season kicked off with one of Greece’s greatest actresses in a fierce role: Leda Protopsalti as Bernarda Alba at the Stoa Theater, directed by her long-time stage partner Thanassis Papageorgiou. The two artists met in 1962 in Vassilis Diamantopoulos’s theater company, when they were still youngsters: She was 22 and he was 24. They married in 1965 and a year later their only child was born. Shortly afterward, they separated. «Sure, we separated in our private lives but, in the end, we remained anything but separated,» Protopsalti says today. They have been wanting to stage Federico Garcia Lorca’s «House of Bernarda Alba» for a while now. «It’s a poetic work, because Bernarda is conventional. She isn’t some harlot from birth – and that’s where the difficulty in the role lies. She is a woman attached to the traditions and taboos of her culture. She believes wholeheartedly that she is right and the others wrong. She sees the destruction that she is causing – her daughter is hung in the end – but she insists, ‘No, this is what’s right.’ Therein lies the tragedy and the artistic greatness of Lorca. Is it the narrow-mindedness of society that traps us and results in tragedy? I experienced this in my own home. My mother was a young Bernarda Alba. Not so extreme, of course, but that’s how she raised my sister and me,» says Protopsalti. The actress’s mother was a Greek from Moscow, a pianist and distinguished music teacher. She passed on her artistic temperament to her daughters – Leda’s sister is the international opera singer Elsa Kastella. «Our mother was an artist and both teacher and friend to her students, who adored her, with us, her daughters, she was tough. She would get angry when we went out to play like all the other children in Mavili Square, where we grew up. She directed us toward art, of course, and pushed our talents when we were little. She was always by our side but she was icy. ‘The daughters of Mrs Protopsalti must be flawless,’ she would say. The daughters of Mrs Protopsalti! And when, at the end of the play, I say, ‘Bernarda Alba’s youngest daughter died a virgin,’ I hear my mother’s voice inside me.» Her father was a merchant. «He would calm the spirits down in the house. In Bernarda’s house, however, there is no man. Widowed twice, with five daughters, I have wondered what this woman must really be like. Did she ever truly love in her life; did she give anything to her husbands, her daughters? Bernarda is one of those women who do not allow their feelings to show, something quite alien to me. I am incapable of hiding what I feel! But I like Bernarda. It is tragic not to be able to allow yourself to feel human, constantly tense because someone has filled you with ideas. But isn’t each extreme ideology the same thing? Didn’t the same thing happen in Russia? Didn’t those people, with their ideology, end up destroying the world?» Commitment Having played in only contemporary Greek works and unknown roles for so many years, Protopsalti often feels the need to play something else. «I think sometimes I should play Ibsen, Pirandello, but each time something new comes along, something Greek, and I get swept away by it. But I tell Thanassis, ‘I want to play Lady Macbeth,’ and I nag him and make a mess of the work. No, we committed ourselves to Greek works. There have been times when it has tired me, I can’t deny it. And then I would say things like, ‘Let’s put on something by Miller,’ Thanassis would be great at that. So, in the past few years, we have staged Lorca, Bond, Kesler, we opened up to tragedy with ‘Hecuba.’ But contemporary plays will always be our goal.» Papageorgiou and Protopsalti have decided to continue with tragedy. «Next year we will stage ‘Iphigenia at Aulis.’ Not at Epidaurus, here. We like closed spaces. We want to bring the audience closer to ancient drama. When playing Hecuba, I realized how much they need it, how they become fixed when the lights go down. It’s not the same in an open space.» The actress has never considered leaving the Stoa to follow another, perhaps more illustrious, path. «Thanassis and I see theater from the same perspective. And I believe that an actor blossoms when he stays with the same team, the same collective. I believe this is how good work is done, and the illustriousness comes from that. And you do Bost’s ‘Medea’ and it is a success. I waited. And I tried not to let it go to my head. My mother had taught me this, that’s one thing I owe her. ‘Patience,’ she would say. ‘Wait. Work.’ I remember my father, when the actors of Diamantopoulos’s company had rebelled because they weren’t being paid. He said to me: ‘By rights, you should pay him! You are learning from him.’» But Protopsalti also went through some hard times. Their salaries were low and the effort to combine a personal life with the theater, tiring. Home, child, partner, theater. «The effort of keeping up with everything tired me. It’s very tough sometimes to mop, cook and learn your lines.» She also admits to being very lonely at times. She spent 18 years with her second partner until, in 1996 and at a mature age, she was bold enough to make another break when she saw the relationship was dying. «The fear of loneliness… to go home to a dark house, where no one is waiting for you, is hard. I’m fine now, I’m with someone again.» She finds it difficult to describe Papageorgiou both as a person and as an artist. «He is very paradoxical. Yet it’s difficult for me to say what comes to mind but I shall: As with all great people, these paradoxes give birth to all the great things they do. He adores his work – he knows everything from the lighting to the last technical detail. As a person, paradox again. He might offend you with something stupid he says but he will stand by you like no one else. And he is very grateful. He never forgets, he is not unappreciative. Either way, he surprises you each time.» How does she remember the first years of their relationship? «We were so young. We married too soon, had the child, nothing was in our hands. It was natural that the relationship would be destroyed. Our families harangued us over the theater company. And my parents, they didn’t believe in Thanassis. They didn’t know him. Only I believed in him because I knew him. And I saw how passionately he wanted to learn everything about the theater.» Protopsalti’s great love is children’s theater, which she is in charge of at the Stoa. This year there is nothing planned because of the «Bernarda Alba» play. «You see, that’s where I started. I was 12 years old when Madame Katerina chose me to star in a children’s play. I went to the Matei-Rossopoulou dance school and Katerina looked for the children she needed there. It was my first audition! Below were Katerina, her husband Titos Farmakis and the director, Takis Mouzenides. When I finished, Mouzenides took me into his arms and said to Katerina ‘Here is Renoula!’ When the performances had finished my mother said: ‘That was an experience. Now you have junior high. When you finish, you shall go to drama school if you want, and then you are free to do whatever you choose.’» Choosing the Stoa When she separated from Papageorgiou the wound remained open for many years. They got together again in 1973, when she joined the Stoa, only to separate once more three years later. «It was my decision, but it hurt. Then I faced the greatest dilemma of my life: to either leave the Stoa, or stay and suffer. And I said: ‘No, I will stay and turn over a new leaf. I will accept the separation and will not be hurt by it. Thanassis is no longer your husband, he is a friend, a co-worker.’ It was difficult but I managed. Life is a struggle. Just as we struggle on stage and give a little piece of ourselves. When a play finishes, it is as though someone close to us has died. You feel empty. «I remember when ‘Faust’ finished. Thanassis rang me one night and I was crying. ‘What’s wrong?’ he asked. ‘«Faust’» has finished,’ I said to him. He was silent for a while, then finally he confirmed it: ‘You’re mad.’»