A Witness in the Thick of Things. Russian actor Vadim Davydov on classic and modern theatre
Film and theatre actors of older generation in Russia are known by many people who have grown up on their films and performances. They were (and still are, despite the fact that some of them are no longer alive) the bearers of a special culture, special approach to the profession. Watching them plaing, we don’t percieve it as a play — we believe their heroes and empathize them. Who replaces the older generation? How to save that genuine and sincere feeling, that the old Russian theatre school has and that we used to call ‘classics’? There are many questions and no clear answers to them, but we can try to comprehend and understand the issue. Our today’s guest is a rising star of the domestic scene, the young representative of the old Russian theatre school who advocates for preservation of traditions, revival of the classics, sincere conversation with the audience — in defiance to what today’s film industry offers in the form of one-time sequels, action movies loaded with visual effects, but not sense, and near miss reality shows. Admit that you need to have courage to follow your own principles, openly oppose the mainstream, abandon uninteresting and superficial roles.
Since his childhood, Vadim Davydov had no choice: he dreamed of becoming an actor. This love started up during the play ‘The Scarlet Flower’, which was put by his grandfather in the Youth Theatre in Volgograd. But the fulfillment of the dream was not that easy. Vadim persistently tried to enter the theatrical universities for several years, being hurtfully ‘cut’ on the last tests. Destiny rewarded the guy from province with masterful teachers, successors of the Stanislavsky school. Today Vadim is an actor of classical Russian theatre.
— Why theatre after all?
— From the early childhood I felt the burst of energy in theatre and intuitively understood that namely the theatre can shape me as a versatile person. In theory, we know a lot about what the previous generations went through, about wars, hunger, slavery and other horrors which got at mankind. I believe that man was created for happiness, and the path to this coveted happiness is always difficult. Theatre hints and tells you how to find joy, retain self-possession, and recover with body and soul. Theatre offers to look, think and most importantly — feel what is happening, it gives the audience the opportunity to find assonance between their life and the story of the hero or heroine by living the role with them. Theatre praises personality, looks at human nature under magnifying glass, shows treasures that are hidden in absolutely every human being, what a huge potential is put behind it. I have always been interested in mechanisms of perpetual conflicts, which have been in all ages, motives of actions. That’s why I had chosen theatre. It just happens that in my family everybody took one or another profession to investigate these conflicts (including domestic), to understand what the man is, how much passion he has, how much love or hate is in him.
Grandfather was a great man for me, he was the master of his craft. I saw a good strong man, and I found the same qualities in two other masters, my teachers — Vsevolod Nikolaevich Shilovsky and Sergei Nikolaevich Artsibashev. It’s like they have the same blood type.
I’ve been trying to enter metropolitan theatrical universities for several years. The first time I went to Moscow I was 16 years old. I was nobody, no protection, no money, just a boy from the province. I changed my speech, conduct, everything, in a manic desire to conquer all. And every institution refused me. During one of the attempts I was even clearly hinted that I shouldn’t even try, because all the places were already taken. You know, it’s a kind of fetish for many wealthy parents or people from art circles to enter their child into theatre school and then into theatre. And yet I entered Russian State University of Cinematography (RSUC) by myself. And to prove to everyone (and to myself) that I’m here for a reason, I worked very hard, literally plowed both through my studies and theatre work balancing actor’s work with the work of a stage decorator and stage-setter. At the At RSUC we were studying round the clock.
— Was it worth the effort?
— Yes, it was. Everyone has their own price. This is mine. Through my first teacher Vsevolod Shilovsky I found a complete harmony with myself.
The Link of Times
— It’s a bold statement, sometimes people look for this harmony for their whole lives.
— But it’s really true. Shilovsky reconciled me with myself. For me he is a living classic. He opens the door for you and you enter it by yourself. He will be kind with you on a professional level, but only if you’re a fan of this profession, otherwise he will not give you a hand or help you in any other way. Only at the end of study Vsevolod Nikolaevich gave me the opportunity to assign the roles for the artists and arrange the set by myself. He realized that I worshiped the profession, that I’m devoted to it.
— Where did he get such an attitude?
— Shilovsky is a student of a student of Konstantin Sergeevich Stanislavsky. As a director, he staged performances with the ‘old men’ of the Moscow Academic Art Theatre (MAAT). This is a man who honors and preserves traditions of the great theatrical treasure of Russia. He is devoted to his case. As you look at him you involuntarily want to learn everything from him. This man makes every student much better in all respects and directions. Thanks to him, I received a full-fledged profession, became more intelligent, stopped being afraid of conflict in affairs of any complexity. Now I’m 28 years old, and I can survive anywhere, because I can gather performance, perform it, and disassemble it.
Actor’s profession is like a poem “Height” by Vladimir Vysotsky. You can’t let yourself be confused either by word, or by look, you have to be perfect internally, ready for the battle, otherwise you will be toppled down.
— There is a lot of pathos in your words.
— I have more to say: I am a hard worker and a fanatic of my work. I adore theatre, cinema, sense of delicacy, I respect cultures of all countries, and herewith I realize how many things I’m yet to learn, and what I need to work on.
— In your ‘track record’ you have roles from classic performances exclusively. You don’t play in modern productions on principle?
— It’s good to have both classic and modern theatre — for any viewer. But I am a fan of the classics. I grew up on it. Since childhood I’ve been reading a lot of different literature that explored the human soul, primarily classic. Especially I fell in love with Dostoevsky. All of it was very useful for me in the profession. Before the start of training Shilovsky gave us a huge list of literature and old films that and we had to know all the heroes and all the plots from them. This way the master made us more educated and knowledgeable.
From year to year in Russian theatrical circles there are less and less followers of true, classical, old Russian school of acting. Instead of this there are a lot of modern obscure productions that don’t leave a trace. Same in cinema, there are more and more ‘popcorn’ films without deep plot and plan, — just to entertain the masses. And classics, whether it is music, literature. or theatre — is an immortal notion.
— How did you get into the theatre ‘At Pokrovka’ to Sergei Artsibashev?
— The theatres of Moscow make examinations once every few years, and just in year of our graduation there was intake in the theatre ‘At Pokrovka’. Crowds of graduates were looking for a job. My wife (her name is Anastasia) and me passed through the sieve of examinations. There were four stages: I showed excerpts from graduation performances, read a lot of poetry, then there were three rounds with the director’s assignments — I had to disassemble pieces, while the material was always different, and the time for preparing the scene was declining. That way the director examined how much the person is able to work in a force majeure. My wife and me were studying in the same course, and, by the way, we were the only ones from our course who found a job immediately after graduation. Nastia played more than me, she plowed every night. In the theatre ‘At Pokrovka’ my wife had a huge amount of main roles. Ophelia in ‘Hamlet’, Sofia in ‘Woe from Wit’, Ulenka in ‘Dead Souls’… And we were taken as pair, were put in the same performances. It’s perfect to work together, it’s a full-fledged workplace romance if you trust each other and if you are friends.
Theatre of Artsibashev is a small ‘Maly Theatre’, it has all the classical repertoire. As you understood, this is mine. What is a classic today? It’s a desire to restore the decayed link of times, when heroes of books and plays, which were written centuries ago, are becoming our contemporaries. In all these performances there is everything — comedy play, grotesque, tragedy of Russian nature. Artsibashev incorporated the system of Stanislavsky and experience of the whole world theatre. Recently the art director of the theatre died. One classic fewer.
— You are good at fencing and even entered competitions. Fencing is a compulsory subject in theatrical high schools, but many people are content with only academic hours, and you went on. Why?
— Already during the first lesson with an épée I understood that this subject requires great seriousness, full self-control and discipline. You must listen to the teacher, you are his soldier. If you disobey, your épée will be taken away. Épée is a sacred thing, it reminds that millions of people killed with exactly the same weapon, but also they defended their lives with it. When you take épée, you understand how much you are imperfect, how sore are your feet and arms, how much are you out of tune with yourself. You fall in love with fencing, start to move miraculously, become dangerous, and it is fascinating. This university hobby of mine resulted in a serious role in the theatre — Laertes in ‘Hamlet’. Laertes is unthinkable without épée, he is a master of fencing. Moreover, I was given an assignment in performance to put up a fighting for four. In this performance my wife got the role of Ophelia, and lessons of fencing were also useful for her.
One Meter above the Ground
— You have mentioned that classical theatre school is getting lesser demand. What’s happening? Why the familiar works are being remade in a new way or their action is being put to other, modern decorations? Why is this so?
— Without these modern fancies certain part of the audience will not go to theatre. There is such a thing like epatage. It is necessary to draw an attention at any cost, so that people would talk about you — no matter good or bad. Epatage is the enemy literary and stage aesthetics. What do modern theatres do? They take classical material (I cannot say that they spoil it or look at it in a different way) and exploit the beauty which is incorporated there, add things which are ugly at the background of this beauty. Of course, this is not always happening, sometimes nice things are produced. But I’ve seen maybe five percents of decent performances. Everything else for me is a mystery. Let’s take naked people in theatre. For the sake of what there are naked genitals on stage?
In modern theatre people undress physically, not being able to undress mentally, to open the most hidden corners of their soul.
So that audience would come for dressed highly educated people, playing the classics, the artists should be much better prepared and the director should be 10 heads above them. These creators — directors, actors, composers, artists involved in theatre — should be the elite. But it is never enough. And it turns out that the classics are for minority, but not for the masses. The viewer for touching the classics must also be initially prepared, informed, be able for self-improvement. The more educated is the reader, viewer, the thinner he feels. In modern theatre, these skills are not as much in demand, but even this theatre has its audience, and this is as it should be. There should always be an option.
What attracts me in the classical theatre? It is based on tendencies. This is the precise work — to trace a tendency, but not complete it on obvious thing. For example, the tendency of love: this is art — to complete the action not fruity kiss, but at a distance of 20 centimeters to the lips. If you come near and grab the woman’s breast, you just break the story, tendency, and then you’re a cad. Remember ‘Nostalgia’ by Andrei Tarkovsky: the divine chest appears in the middle of the film, and man did not pick it up. In this picture is clearly shown the man’s mind, the director’s mind, the performer’s mind. When things are not so obvious, we have time to think, to feel, to understand where it goes.
— You can’t blame all the modern theatre in its superficiality. It must have some advantages.
— I agree. For example, contemporary dances managed to break away. They are surprisingly entertaining, spiritual. There is plastic, there is beautiful body, constant internal and external movement and indomitable will of the performers. And about the theatre, many people have doubts where does it move, whether it exists at all.
— In modern Russian cinema, if we generalize, does the same thing happen?
— From many of my colleagues I’ve been hearing the same thing for a long time: ‘such a standstill!’, ‘such a horror!’.
— I’m judging very subjectively. One of the best examples is 2015 movie ‘The Dawns Here are Quiet…’. Maybe because I grew up watching 1972 movie by Stanislav Rostotsky I couldn’t watch the new film. I did not see that shrillness that was present in the earlier version. Firstly, why bother with a remake? Secondly, why make it worse than the original?
— You provided a good example. In film ‘The Dawns Here are Quiet’ you should think about the soul, about the girls who go to the battle because they were left high and dry. But if already in the early stages (I am talking about today’s ‘Dawns’) an actress should be filmed naked in the bath, will she really think about the soul? She will go to the gym once more and make depilation.
The new drama doesn’t appear, but it should dictate what to do to other crafts. For some reason in Russia script writers cannot write so that you would like to play, and if it is suddenly turned out well, it will not be allowed on television. If there is no new drama — there are remakes, which exploit the old great drama. And exploitation is slavery. First of all, in their own minds. Russia is now despite the fact that we have many talented poets, artists, filmmakers, composers, actors.
— You have a number of roles in serials. Are you ashamed to act in serials or not anymore?
— Actors go to shoot in serials to earn for a living. In my opinion, it is not an art. I played in serials a little, and I did not get more than lead role in episode. But in those roles there were text and logic. I had to give up repeatedly, because it was poorly written, it not interesting. Serial is a race. Sometimes during 12 hours shift I had to play in seven scenes. That’s a lot. For me it’s very difficult to talk to those who shoot serials. They don’t need your school, don’t need in-depth analysis of the image. Russian TV serials often neglect even cause and effect relationship. They need faster, faster, faster.
If you as an actor is committed to something huge, classics, you will not get in any serial. You’re just not right for the job like this: you are sick with vocabulary, lack of depth, it’s not working out for you, you fail at the trial stage.
Of course, there are good serials, but very few of them.
As for full-length movies, I can say that there are fabulous directors, but they film once in a few years, it’s difficult to get to them, because they look for a particular type. I was on trial at Chukhray, Zvyagintsev. It is pleasing to be there, it is nice in all respects.
— How far can an actor go while working?
— For example, be ready to die, like Leonardo DiCaprio, and decide to make hundred doubles in icy water. But actor must have enough intelligence and skill to stay alive. There was a case when I received main role from Shilovsky at the very moment when I had severe form of hepatitis, which fortunately was not contagious. I was of yellow-orange color, made decorations, rehearsed, produced performance with temperature 38. In this regard, master believed me and let a lot.
— It is widely believed that Russian theatrical school is one of the best in the world. In what lies its strength?
— In true respect and worship to art. The discipline here is not even iron, but diamond. You can be a genius, weep at the click of director in the context of role, but if there is no discipline, sooner or later you’re going to explode, like on minefield. By the way, the most talented, as a rule, are the most lax, they believe that everything will come anyway. Half of our course was expelled due to several delays and lack of respect for the profession. Shilovsky said: ‘You are not allowed to come to me late’ And that’s correct. If you don’t overcome your disciplinary troubles — you will never become anybody, you will not actualize yourself. Discipline is the internal culture. And without culture people are doomed.
Vsevolod Nikolaevich is a real actor, and besides he taught us: actor must preserve his nature, he should smell good, look good, and even if he is a genius, he must plow every day, because he understands, what price has this spotlight. Another few phrases of Vsevolod Nikolaevich: ‘If you don’t work in the profession more than 12 hours a day, you are nobody’, ‘You need to work very hard and than — maybe (!) — something succeeds’. Our master paid great attention to the speech, what it should be: without words-parasites, idiocies, without swearing in the presence of women. He taught us to speak with own voice, by ourselves, to be attentive to details, to have own point of view, to hear the partner not only on the playing field, but also outside the theatre.
The strength of Russian theatre, certainly, is in Stanislavsky school: you don’t play anybody, you play yourself in the given circumstances — and this is the beginning of a great teaching. Here the knowledge is important: it is necessary to understand who you are, where you are, what do you want, not being afraid of diving in circumstances, specified by the playwright, staying by yourself upon that, switching on intuition and logic. You must take these circumstances with all your nerves, skin, intestines and brain. If you analyze, get to the essence, it turns out a true work of art. At the same time, we were taught to step on our own throat, to give up our low interests, to worship our craft fanatically.
Another important difference of classical theatre. The performance is collected, it is already in the repertoire, it is already coming to the viewer, but there are still constant rehearsals, the performance is being polished, is becoming bigger and more accurate. This principle — to do bulkier what you did yesterday, to become stronger than you were, more intelligent than you were — is fundamental.
Big ideas, culture of reproduction, hope and beauty — all of this must be in the theatre ‘one meter above the ground’. There is such an expression about true art.
Born on November 24, 1987. All his childhood he lived in the same house with his grandfather Vadim Ivanovich Davydov, Honored Artist of the RSFSR, theatre actor and director, and grandmother Larisa Viktorovna Davydova, Honored Artist of Russia. At RSUC he studied in the studio of People’s Artist Vsevolod Shilovsky, a representative of old classical Stanislavsky school of acting. During the studies, he played in three diploma performances: ‘Wolves and Sheep’ (Goretsky), ‘Zoya’s Apartment’ (Chinese Cherubim), ‘Butterflies are Free’ (Don Baker). At the same time he worked on decorations of these performances. Among the roles in the theatre ‘At Pokrovka’: ‘Hamlet’ (Laertes), ‘Tartuffe’ (Valère), ‘Star Boy’ (Yan), ‘The Government Inspector’ (Mishka), ‘Arbenin’ (Player), poetic play ‘Alarm Bell’ (the main role).