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Travelling... England: Art & Literature Festival

Diana Owen travelled to Myrtia to attend this special event hosted by the Kazantzakis Museum, celebrating the Greek writer's particular appreciation of Shakespeare.

Diana Owen

' If the whole of humanity was to send a single representative to speak for its rights before God, it would send Shakespeare.'

— N Kazantzakis

2017 was nominated 'Year of Kazantzakis' by the Greek Ministry of Culture to mark the 60th anniversary of the writer's death. Organised by the Kazantzakis Museum in Myrtia near Heraklion, this ambitious festival celebrated Nikos Kazantzakis visits to England and his appreciation of William Shakespeare. The streets of this small village were filled with images of England - dancing umbrellas strung high over the street, red telephone boxes speaking the poets' words, red post boxes, life size cut outs of Elizabeth I, amongst others, and a representative half-timbered house. 

Art & Literature Festival Myrtia

At the museum, a special evening of talks about Shakespeare and Kazantzakis was held, culminating in the signing of a friendship agreement between the museum and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. This was followed by a wonderful concert of new music created by the composer Dimitris Maramis based on texts by the two writers in the museum square in front of an audience of 500 and beautifully sung by three of Greece's finest voices.

We continued into the night with performances of Shakespeare's works in Myrtia's very own Forest of Arden, a magical woodland setting providing a dramatically eerie backdrop to inspired and atmospheric excerpts from Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, and A Midsummer Night's Dream, interwoven with extracts from Kazantzakis writings on Shakespeare. The audience was ranged across the hillside in pitch darkness, mesmerised by the actors' skill & fluid movements and Shakespeare's words spoken in Greek. As midnight approached a large feast was served in the village for performers, musicians, guests and audience alike as the air cooled just a little. It was truly a night to remember and a fitting tribute to our two great writers.

Art & Literature Festival Myrtia

The festivities had started the previous evening with a marathon reading of Kazantzakis book England with over 50 readers in the wonderful rooftop spaces of the Venetian fort in Heraklion. I had the privilege to read the first extract which began:

"These are difficult moments we are passing through, and we feel the need of regulating our hopes and fears, of bending over Destiny's ledgers, which now stand open, and of ascertaining the state of Great Britain's account. Without my consciously reflecting about it, some obscure but infallible instinct in my own soul made me rush to Stratford. I wanted to approach the supreme spirit born of this race and from that point to turn my gaze outward."

Kazantzakis visited England from July-November 1939, having been invited by the British Council at the suggestion of the British Ambassador in Athens. On the verge of the Second World War, Kazantzakis observed the preparations for war and experienced the first bombings after war was declared in September. His goal was to seek out the meaning of England and the English soul, to understand what makes an Englishman, whom he admired for his quiet dignity, persistence, resilience, discipline, humanity and pride. Kazantzakis admired England in particular for the Magna Carta, for the model of the gentleman and for Shakespeare who, according to Kazantzakis "raised a voice of freedom".

Art & Literature Festival Myrtia

During his visit to England, Kazantzakis came to Stratford-upon-Avon with his wife, Eleni. They stayed at Hall's Croft, the house of Shakespeare's daughter, Susannah, at the invitation of his supporter and sponsor Josephine Macleod, who owned the house at the time. Kazantzakis dedicated the first volume of his great work, Odyssey, published in 1938 to Josephine.  Kanzatzakis called Hall's Croft 'an immense wing of the British Museum' whilst Eleni wrote:

"Hall's Croft was more than an old Shakespearean home - an entire museum lay at our disposal: we could roam freely and eat our meals in front of fireplaces where trunks of trees hundreds of years old burned slowly, over a period of several days. Nikos (...) loved to walk along the banks of the Avon with its white swans and its rose arbours and through the medieval lanes, where quaint characters chattered on their doorsteps."

Kazantzakis wrote about the 'pretty wooden houses, blackened by time and damp; spick and span streets; people whose faces sparkle from the reflection of the poet' and walked extensively around the countryside including visiting Anne Hathaway's Cottage. Whilst at Hall's Croft, Kazantzakis completed his play, Julian the Apostate.

Art & Literature Festival Myrtia

In one of those unexplainable twists of fate that both writers would've enjoyed, the great grand-daughter of a colleague of Kazantzakis, Lola Spetsioti, now works for the Trust at Hall's Croft. In sharing this twinning moment with me, Lola brought to life the very real connection between these two writers and our two cultures. As President of the Nikos Kazantzakis Museum, Professor Michael Taroydakis said, on the occasion of our twinning, our obligation today is "To bring their spirits together. And promise them that we will walk together as much as we can, to keep the flame that has sprung from the soul of the two men lit. To exchange thoughts, ideas of creations, as Shakespeare and Kazantzakis would have done if they lived at the same time."

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