MIL OSI Translation. Region: Russian Federation –
The history of the production, which was created by the artistic director of the Leningrad Bolshoi Drama Theater in the Moscow Sovremennik.
The news that the new performance at Sovremennik would be staged by Tovstonogov himself, who would come from Leningrad especially for this, quickly spread throughout Moscow and preceded one of the most notorious cultural events of the 1973 season. Georgy Alexandrovich, a very famous director in the country, accepted an invitation to create a production based on the book of satirical sketches “Modern Idyll” by Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin. In the same year, directors Alexander Vokach and Leonid Pchelkin made a TV version of the production.
How Tovstonogov and Mikhalkov saved the production
The play “Balalaikin and Co.” was sustained in the spirit of the work itself – witty, mercilessly ridiculing the inhabitants of the 19th century, who prefer to waste time drinking another cup of tea in anticipation of better times promised by the authorities. These intellectuals, who forgot about their views and were afraid to say a word across, were deliberately grotesquely played by a whole galaxy of future big stars who were part of the Sovremennik troupe: Valentin Gaft, Igor Kvasha, Oleg Tabakov, Andrey Myagkov (before the film The Irony of Fate, which will his superstar, two years). The frivolous Fainushka, whom the charming villain-lawyer Balalaikin (Tabakov) is supposed to marry because of money, was played by Nina Doroshina – the future Nadia in the film “Love and Doves”.
Of the masters, not only Tovstonogov was involved in the work on the play – the play based on the novel by Salykov-Shchedrin was written by Sergei Mikhalkov himself, a poet, playwright, screenwriter and one of the authors of the USSR anthem. He altered it several times, added something, removed something, and changed the name. As a result, the play “Balalaikin and Co.” turned out to be surprisingly topical. Its literary basis, the book Modern Idyll, was written in 1877-1881 – in the last years of the reign and life of Alexander II, who went down in the history of the Russian Empire as the Liberator. The large-scale reforms carried out by him (including the abolition of serfdom) were initially positively perceived by society, but later the emperor’s activities were seriously criticized.
The post-thaw 1970s in the USSR were a similar time: until recently, the country had risen in anticipation of changes – and now everything was over. In “Sovremennik” they were afraid: the cultural department would consider the performance overly sharp and ban it.
Tovstonogov and Mikhalkov went for a little trick. During the dress rehearsal – when officials from the city committee, the ministry, and the Central Committee were supposed to accept the production – the director and playwright, relying on their already well-deserved authority, came with all their awards they had ever received. On the same day Mikhalkov, defending both the play and the performance, just in case, said that all sorts of undesirable associations could arise only in a “very anti-Soviet person”. The play was safely released.
“Too out of reach” director
It was an honor for the Sovremennik artists to work with Tovstonogov, a living legend. They caught his every word, they were afraid to disappoint. In 1956, Georgy Aleksandrovich became the chief director of the Leningrad Bolshoi Drama Theater and not only brought him out of creative stagnation and decline, but also made the entire USSR talk about him. Laureate of two Stalin (1950 and 1952) and Lenin (1958) prizes, Tovstonogov was a man of the world – he often went abroad, staged a lot in theaters in Europe.
“When I saw him, he was in an extraordinary tweed jacket, a very nice American shirt, a scarf around his neck, it smells great, a completely different human type for our theater. At Sovremennik, gloss was not accepted, such chic, but here everything is one to one: boots, socks, trousers, sweater, shirt, handkerchief. This is how he was remembered when he came to the rehearsal. I had seen him before, but then I saw him, saw him closer. Just a womanizer, ”recalled Valentin Gaft.
At the very first rehearsal, the director said that the text of Saltykov-Shchedrin is “a satire for centuries.” Everything the classic writes about takes place in real life, this book should not be treated as fiction. It was important for Tovstonogov that the actor went on stage with a great understanding of the material. He did not believe that it was possible to play formally, without having anything inside, therefore he demanded from the artists their personal origin and full involvement in the process.
Tovstonogov gave the actors freedom, was happy when they themselves proposed something, became co-authors of the play. And under the impression of the game, someone could even change the whole scene to suit him, saying that the actor was a genius. Sometimes he himself asked the team: “Am I doing the right thing? Everything worked out?” These questions baffled everyone – it was unexpected to hear them from the famous director. At the same time, Georgy Alexandrovich did not like when they asked him questions, he was a little annoyed. But he always answered.
“We respected Tovstonogov immensely, and there was always a distance between us. The kind of contact that happens in the theater with other directors, there could not be – he was too unattainable, the company did not work, ”- said Gaft.
Georgy Alexandrovich trusted the artists, their professional intuition. When the rehearsals were going on, he sometimes had to leave Moscow on business, so some scenes were honed without him. During the next departure of Tovstonogov, the actors worked through the already assembled first act, traditionally including their ideas in it. When the director returned and saw the result, he turned pale. “Isn’t this sabotage?” He asked. The artists quickly found an answer – they say, the game was not at full strength, just a warm-up. When they played for the second time, Tovstonogov was delighted.
Between Sovremennik and BDT
The invitation of Georgy Tovstonogov to Sovremennik did not come as a surprise to the troupe – the fact is that he was friends with Galina Volchek, who by that time had taken over as chief director of the Moscow theater. Rumors even attributed the novel, but there was no confirmation. The gossip heroes themselves only laughed at them. The same friendly relations were also associated with the Sovremennik collective with the Bolshoi Drama Theater (BDT). When Galina Borisovna called Georgy Alexandrovich to stage the play, he agreed, despite his enormous employment – at that time he not only solved matters at the BDT, but also staged performances in Hungary.
Tovstonogov was not the only invited director. In the 1970s, Sovremennik, on Volchek’s initiative, also worked with Andrzej Wajda from Poland and Peter James from Great Britain. But such awe among the troupe, as Georgy Alexandrovich, was perhaps not aroused by anyone.
It was planned that the collaboration would not end with one production – at least the artists often asked the master if he wanted to stage something else. He invariably agreed, but “Balalaikin” remained the only performance of Tovstonogov in “Contemporary”.
In 2001, 28 years after the premiere, Valentin Gaft and Igor Kvasha, as directors, gave Balalaikin and Co. a second life (the 1973 performance lasted about 15 years). They themselves remained in their own roles – Glumov and the Narrator, but the cast as a whole changed, Nina Doroshina, Andrey Myagkov, Oleg Tabakov did not return to the performance for various reasons. The role of Balalaikin was shared by Ilya Drevnov and Valery Shalnykh, Sergei Garmash appeared.
The scenery was left almost the same – silk curtains framing the stage, antique candelabra, doors at the edges. All this was restored according to the preserved sketches. They also tried not to retreat from what Tovstonogov created – the mise-en-scènes were done from memory.
The audience greeted the performance very warmly, although it could not repeat such a resounding success as the original.
How Sovremennik was born. The history of the theater in the stories of its founders
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is a translation. Apologies should the grammar and or sentence structure not be perfect.