Cyprus stages play for peace at reopened landmark

Famagusta (Cyprus) (AFP) - Cyprus's Othello Tower, named after the ill-fated Shakespearean hero, reopened Thursday after a facelift with a performance of the tragedy that organisers hope will spread unity among long-divided communities.

The year-long, EU-funded project to renovate the mediaeval tower in the port of Famagusta's 14th century castle comes as Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders are locked in talks to reach a breakthrough on the decades-old split.

Thursday's retelling of Shakespeare's tragic love story featured actors from both communities, a rare act of cultural coexistence on an island cleaved by politics.

"We don't have lots of opportunities for Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots to work together. It's a very good opportunity to know each other and do something with art together," said actor Vasiliki Andreou, 31.

In 1974, Turkish troops invaded northern Cyprus in response to an Athens-engineered coup, and later occupied the territory.

The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) was declared in 1982, recognised only by Ankara, and decades of UN-brokered peace talks have failed to reach a peaceful conclusion.

The Mediterranean island remains split and around 1,000 United Nations peacekeepers patrol a ceasefire line that cuts through the heart of Nicosia, the last remaining divided capital in Europe.

While most of the play is set in Cyprus, Othello isn't known for its depiction of brotherliness. But director Izel Seylani insisted the drama remained relevant to the island's present predicament.

"It has many things in it: the desire for power. We needed to underline this," he said as the last rays of sunlight slipped down from the stage, surrounded by ancient castle walls.

For Seylani, the location of his troupe's performance was as significant as its content.

"Othello Tower has a value for Cyprus, the north and the south. We are sharing it together."

Talks between Turkish and Greek Cypriot leaders restarted in May following the election of Mustafa Akinci as leader of the TRNC.

A former mayor of Nicosia and stanchly pro-reunification, analysts say Akinci's victory could offer the best chance in years at a breakthrough to the divide.

"After the elections in the north, things are getting faster and we have more hope in this process," Seylani said.

- 'Emergency' measures ?

For Oksana Tomova, the Slovakian ambassador to Cyprus, the symbolism of staging a play featuring Greek and Turkish Cypriots in the old walls of one of the island's most spectacular archaeological sites speaks for itself.

Slovakia has helped to organise decades of talks between Cypriot leaders, and contributes troops to the island's UN peacekeepers.

"This is a positive moment," said Tomova, referring to the renewed negotiations. We also wanted to send a signal to the public that we need to give attention to the cultural heritage of the island."

As much as Thursday's performance was about coexistence, it also marked the culmination of more than a year of painstaking renovation work.

The 600-year-old tower needed its walls strengthened, its plumbing fixed, and its foundations shored up to prevent the chance of collapse.

As Tiziana Zennaro from the United Nations Development Programme that oversaw the work put it: "This initially started as emergency measures."

Burc Barin, 35, played the hapless Rodrigo in Thursday's abbreviated version. He hopes that other projects get inspired by the actors' cooperation.

"If we actually work together there isn't anything we can't succeed in," he said.

As the prospect of peace talks bearing fruit grows, Thursday's cast was under no illusion that much work remains before all of Cyprus can once again enjoy all of its cultural jewels.

"It's just one pebble in a huge pool," said Barin. "Hopefully when the circumstances are right... we can start from where we left off."

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