After Taxithi, Maria Mercedes returns to a Greek-themed show. And after Master Class, she returns to playing the role of a Greek icon, a woman larger than life. That woman is Melina Mercouri, the actor-turned politician who raised international awareness for the military dictatorship and became a Minister of Culture – arguably the most successful one to occupy the role in the history of the Greek state.

Ready to put on her blonde wig for what is a series of ‘preview-type’ shows, the actress shares the show’s backstory.

How did Greek Goddess come to be?
Terence O’ Connell, who has written the show, saw me play Maria Callas in Master Class and he was very inspired. He’s always loved Melina Mercouri, not only as an actress, but because of what she represented: if there was ever a voice of Greece, it has to be Melina Mercouri. So, he approached me and asked me if I was interested and I said “absolutely”. The show is not her life story; it’s basically set in 1967, when the generals took over Greece. Melina at the time was on Broadway, doing Illya Darling, the musical version of Never on Sunday. That’s the premise of the show; it takes place after one of her performances, she invites actors of other shows and the audience who came to see her and she talks about her love for Greece and how she was really proud of her film Never on Sunday because it generated a wave of people wanting to visit Greece and engage with the people and the culture.

Her grandfather, Spiros Merkouris, was mayor for 18 years (editor’s note: 1899-1914, 1929-1932) and it was his legacy and his memory that instigated her fight for the freedom of the Greek people during that time. She would ask herself: “what would my grandfather think about this today?” Because in the old days a politician like her grandfather was considered a ‘father to the people’ and the dictators were far from that. So she would go out and say things like: “I’m doing a happy show, but Greece is not a happy place at the moment and I don’t want anyone visit Greece, as long as this situation continues”. And as we know, she was stripped of her citizenship, her films were not allowed to be played during the dictatorship. In the show we also talk about Mikis Theodorakis and other artists and poets who were jailed at the time, because their work spoke of liberation and freedom for people. I guess that it’s a political piece, but it’s also very entertaining, with a lot of singing, because she was a very personable human being.

What does Melina mean to you?
She represents to me a woman of integrity. There was no differentiation whether she was male or female, she was a very strong woman and a very honest woman. She wouldn’t do anything for the ‘fame’ factor. She was famous anyway. But she used her fame in a very powerful way, to educate people, and she used her connections, people like Marlon Brando and Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, to write letters to the American government urging them to free people like Mikis Theodorakis. She was an army unto herself, she had such strength and convictions. In a lot of ways, she felt some guilt during WWII because a lot of her friends had died being in the Resistance and she felt that she didn’t do enough during that time. So this was a moment of redemption for her.

How did you approach the role?
That is a good question. I’m not going to do an impersonation; just like I did with Maria Callas, what I do is take the essence of her and I interpret her. I’m not trying to impersonate her, but portray the fire, the essence of Melina in my own body. Of course, I intend to wear a blond wig, because Melina’s image was so strong. It’s very much embedded in people’s minds. When you think of Melina you think of this vibrant blonde, blue-eyed woman …

. . . with blood-red lips.
Precisely! We’re going to have a lot of Australians, English-speaking people in the audience, so they need to identify with the image they recognise. Because, in all honesty, I don’t think that Melina is as identifiable as Callas. You say Maria Callas and everyone knows who she is. Melina, because she didn’t continue with her acting career, she’s noted for some very fine films and a lot of theatre, but young people today who are very politically minded should know Melina and that is my purpose. I want to remind people who know about her, but to also educate other people who don’t know about her, because she was a very important figure, politically.

Why is this important? What is her relevance today?
Look what’s happening to Greece, over the last few years, the situation that Greece got itself into, being held to ransom, as far as I’m concerned. I keep thinking that if she’d been alive today, she would do exactly what she’d been doing from 1967 onwards – fighting for justice for Greek citizens. If we look at the political climate today, where the US and other countries are always sticking their nose where it shouldn’t be, these countries are still instigators in a lot of the problems of today. These things that are happening today are not new. They’ve been going on for a long, long time. It’s a bit of a reminder that what she achieved by turning things around, by being strong to her beliefs.

Who is the ideal audience for this show?
Just because Melina was a Greek figure, doesn’t mean that I want it to be for the Greek public. Melina was a citizen of the world. What she stood for was not only for Greece and the Greek people but for human beings all over the world. This is a universal show. It is still relevant today. My audience is widespread: it’s Greek, Italian, Vietnamese, Scottish, Australian, whatever. If you care about the world, if you care about people, if you care about political subjects, then it will appeal to you.

‘Greek Goddess’ has a sold-out show at the Kingston Arts Theatre on Tueday 27 June at the Kingston Arts Centre. Tickets are available for shows at Gasworks Theatre (21 Graham Street, Albert Park) Thursday 29 June to Saturday 1 July at 7.30 pm. For bookings call (03) 8606 4200.