My last conversation with Alexander happened exactly one year ago. I can still see our digital footprints on my Skype: 23rd September 2013 Call started: 17:31 Call Ended: 17:48 Call Lasted: 16 minutes 50 seconds.
Alexander looked very happy and relaxed, he had a slightly stooped posture and a gentle wandering smile. He had just finished the first edit of our project: the onscreen version of a one-woman play based on Dostoevsky’s little-known early novel Nameless Nobody (Netochka Nezvanova). Originally, we performed the play in 2006 at the Edinburgh Fringe Theatre, where it got five-star reviews, then it transferred to London, where we had a short sell-out run and finally we took it to St.Petersburg, where it won an award at the Independent Theatre Festival. All that unexpected success of this seemingly simple, yet psychologically and spiritually complex production, was mainly due to Alexander’s unique and brilliant directorial work.
Markov’s lifelong dedication to Russian Theatre, Poetry and Literature was always marked by integrity and authenticity, and his unique philosophy of life shines through all of the work. In the eighties, when he was still working as an actor in the main state theatres of St.Petersburg (where he played more than 70 roles), he was already known for his unusual interpretation of some classic roles. The online theatre magazine of St.Petersburg still has a review of his unorthodox interpretation of Cyrano de Bergerac, which he performed at the Pushkin Drama Theatre in 1987:
“In the crowd of frozen and studied mannequins, dressed in multicoloured outfits, appears a slightly stooped, light, agile inconspicuous man in a brown suit. Slightly embarrassed, almost defenceless smile. Husky, soft voice, natural intonations – poet Bergerac-Markov talked rather than declared tirades (words were born spontaneously and flowed, quietly overcoming the hurdles of lines, of verse meter and of rhythm). It was a sincere and spontaneous man, caught in a sedate environment of a high society event. It was a live actor in the sham play. A revolutionary courageous poet of titanic proportions was played by Markov as a decent, intelligent, suffering man – precisely a man and not a hero. Discreet wise Cyrano, who is always ready to accept all the blows of fate. Resigned to loneliness, not pretending to be happy. The glimmer of hope to be loved not so much pleased Markov-Cyrano, but rather plunged him into utter confusion….And then the melodramatic love story crushed the bones of this soft, vulnerable man…”
The most courageous step that an actor or any other artist can do is to reveal his real self in his work, overcoming the temptation of hiding behind the mask of a character. Alexander Markov had both courage and sincerity to do so in his portrayal of Cyrano, revealing his own sensitive, fragile, loving, intelligent self, as well as his non-mainstream attitudes towards society and life.
Unwilling to participate in the politics of state theatre, Alexander Markov chose to stay away from it and be free – despite being “an important, famous, bright actor of his generation, a real theatrical intelligentsia”, he left his glorious acting career in order to set up Russian Nights Theatre with his wife Valentina Beletskaya, also an actress and an outstanding voice coach. His colleagues thought him crazy as independent theatre didn’t get any grants from the government – setting up fringe theatre in 1991 was a financial suicide.
Things were going to get even tougher than expected. The birth of their theatre coincided with the dissolution of the USSR. On 26th December 1991 (a day before Alexander turned 39) the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Amidst confusion and despair, the young theatre remained full of hope and continued rehearsals of their first play. They started rehearsal in Leningrad and finished in St.Petersburg. Sharing little with its former pre-soviet glory, the northern capital, among with its inhabitants, was fully suffering all the effects of the economic and political collapse – Leningrad on its knees. Not surprisingly one of the reviews of their first play started with a description of the city:
“We still live in Leningrad. Unending November absorbed March and April; forgotten by God and Joy, we are wandering , slouching , plodding along amongst the spits and scraps of half-digested cardboard , spurred by brass bands and gestures of begging hands, while the wind cuts faces, and passing Mercedeses douse us with dirty water.”
The play itself was a little-known autobiographical work by Lev Timofeev called “Moscow. Praying for a Cup.” It is centred around two dissidents (the author and his wife), who are trapped in their small flat, while KGB waits outside their house to arrest them. Despite their imminent end, the couple find space to talk to each other sincerely, revealing their suffering and fear, but also their immense tenderness and unbounded Love for each other. The play was received extremely well by the St.Petersburg theatre intelligentsia and won the St.Petersburg Theatre Critics award for “detailed research into the spiritual life of Man”.
Economic and political hardships faded into the background in 1995, when Alexander’s and Valentina’s handsome talented 18-year-old son, who had always been helping them in the backstage of their theatre, went away for the weekend to swim in the lakes with friends, but never returned. It is a Russian Christian Orthodox belief that anyone who dies on the Trinity day is ‘taken by God”, and so the drowned boy became a saintly figure both for his friends and for his parents. From then on, Alexander and Valentina moved even further away from ‘theatre society’ and focused on their spiritual path instead.
St. Petersburg theatre missed Alexander Markov. This is how a director of Pushkin Theatre wrote about him: “Unfortunately, there are talented artists, who sometimes become unclaimed. People fear them or do not notice them. Time passes, and in their place there appears something commercial or empty. Alas, there are many actors like that and Alexander Markov is one of them…. I understood the reason (why Markov left) – he was exploited (in a state theatre); he is an individual with a fragile personality with a deep and bottomless Inner Self. He is smart, thoughtful; his mindset – philosophical, analytical. He is a semiologist! He is an existentialist, he delves into his inner world, he decomposes, he breaks, and then the tension in the muscles of his face tells us that he has understood something, he has made a decision. Moreover, his psyche is very mobile. Sasha Markov is unique. Just listen to how he reads poetry! He almost never modulates his voice. But he reveals the meaning, plunges to its depths, holding the line with his thought! He can do something unbelievable even with bad poetry…. I miss him… Markov – is my personal loss.” Yet despite attempted persuasions to return to work as an actor, Alexander mainly concentrated on his own work and teaching.
It is precisely poetry that became Russian Nights Theatre’s other most successful project: “Poems” – 120 minutes of Pushkin, Tsvetaeva, Mayakovsky, Brodsky and Gogol, but also lesser known Lev Timofeev and their late son Vladimir Markov. Once again their production won awards, grants and after a while, toured Great Britain to sell-out success. This is how Academia Rossica described the performance: “The power of the word, its inexhaustible, symbolic and eternal significance, is the essence of the play… In the pale glimmer of candles, two faces emerge from the darkness. Two lone figures – a man and a woman – conduct a dialogue from opposite ends of the stage:
She: What time is it?
He: Past One – what time are you asking?
She: Tonight my watch stopped: it must prefer Eternity to Time: one hand flew off!
He: You dropped it.
She: No, it was you that broke it, sleepy.
He: I don’t remember.
She: Remember? You cried out, what’s that sound? And I, laughing, told you: my heart.
The poems are united by the over-arching themes of life, love, death and, above all, art… Poems seeks to restore faith in the world, in its prophetic power, which seems to have been lost in our times… The poems are luminous: they exude light. But the source of this light is not the individual brilliance of the authors, it is the unspoken “Gladsome Light”, which they strive towards, taking the audience with them. Light, both natural and artificial, pervade the landscape of the play – in the suburban street lamp, in the merging of ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ light and in the poems themselves:
In the fog streetlights glow,
There’s no time… Look,
Another kind of light emanates from the performance: the fearlessness of the actors, which burns before our eyes.”
How grateful I am to BBC Russia for broadcasting this performance worldwide, because the copy of that recording is still available. Last summer, while we were rehearsing Netochka in a house, which stood in the middle of a forest near Krasniy Liman (I wrote about this in this blog post), we sat on a verandah, drinking tea, and listened to that performance. After a few verses, tears were streaming down my eyes – their acting always spoke to my heart. The depth of their thought, intensity of their love and beauty of their speech never cease to move me.
I wasn’t surprised when I heard that at some stage Alexander thought of joining a Priests Academy (Duhovnuyu Seminariyu). It wasn’t just his long grey beard that made him look like a priest. His light blue piercing eyes were always bright, joyous and calm, without the shadows of inner turmoils and suffering, and with a lot of wisdom and love. Whenever he addressed people his voice was always gentle and considerate. In eight years of knowing him, not once have I heard him loosing patience or becoming irritable. In conflictual situations he displayed unimaginable levels of patience and respect, even when people were letting him down or tried to argue with him thoughtlessly. He was always ready to listen and hear anyone who would speak to him, openly and without judgement, and then, accepting what the speaker had said, expressed very clearly and with a lot of wisdom his own opinion and advice. He would have been an extraordinary pastor, but then the world would have had one less extraordinary director and teacher, who brought his sharp intellect, deep love for humanity and high spirituality into his interaction with others and in his work.
Netochka Nezavnova is Alexander’s Swan Song, his last directorial piece, which he had first conceived in 1972. There were several previous attempts at putting on this play with other actresses, but each time, for various unforeseen reasons, it didn’t materialise. I feel enormously honoured to have been the person, who made Alexander’s dream a reality. It was also my dream to be able to deliver one hour of my favourite writer’s words in a way, which would move people to the same extent that the words move me, and Alexander taught me how to do it. By the time it was filmed, Netochka Nezvanova was exactly seven years old and was performed roughly around 70 times – in Edinburgh, St.Petersburg, London and Kiev. Just like a human being grows, the play grew as well, changed by our life experiences, while also transforming our own lives. (I met my husband Robin through it. He came to the last performance and, having been moved by the play, stayed behind to talk to me.)
To all those critics and colleagues of Markov, who have proclaimed that his “talent was buried alive”, once he stopped acting under the bright lights of state theatre and started directing in small fringe theatres and teaching instead, I’d like to say that only through teaching, Alexander was able to prolong the life of his talent by passing it on to a younger generation. In everyday life, each one of us, through our way of being, influences people around us; the effect we have on other people is in turn passed on to others, much as ripples in a pond go on and on until they are no longer visible. Alexander Markov’s teaching has left many powerful ripples – the Russian Nights School had students from Russia, Ukraine, Finland, Estonia, France, Germany, England, Mongolia. (his wife Valentina Beletskaya still continues teaching at the school, following his method). All these people, whom he taught, carry within them some of Alexander’s light and love, which they will pass on to others.
Human nature and theatre are evanescent and it was precisely this transience that my teacher’s last words to me addressed. In out last conversation on Skype on 23 September 2013, Alexander said to me: “Theatre requires our presence, while film can exist without us. I feel that Netochka already has a life of its own. Our presence is not required anymore.” A couple of hours later he left this life following a heart-attack, but the ripples are still here, flowing through anyone who knew him, worked with him, was taught by him or seen his work. It’s a great consolation for me, as his student and actress, that he was so happy with the first edit of his last project. I had to complete the film without him, but I tried to keep the final edit as close to Alexander’s original intention as possible. The Light and Love that permeated Alexander’s work throughout his life are immortalised in “Netochka Nezvanova – Nameless Nobody”, his only filmed directorial project and the only filmed theatre adaptation of Dostoevsky’s early novel. If you’d like to catch a glimpse of it, the trailer is below.
This is Alexander’s and Valentina’s last performance, which took place in the Slavic Cultural Centre in Donetsk in September 2013. (list of poems in Russian below)
First Poem performed by Alexander Markov:
«Из тюремных молитв»
Позови меня, Господи, в эту горькую дымную даль…
Как еврею даруешь счастливое рабство субботы,
Так и мне ежедневное, грубое рабство подай
И оставь в словаре лишь два слова: любовь и работа.
Я спокойно приму эту непредсказуемо долгую жизнь,
Это горе приму, понесу, сколько выдержит сердце,
И за все предстоящее мне напряжение нервов и жил
Пусть не стану я целью Твоей, но останусь лишь средством.
Я не ради победы – готов хоть к побочным стезям.
Пусть сошьют те, кто после, а я ограничусь примеркой.
Пусть любовь обернется несчастьем – готов и к слезам.
Пусть не музыкой времени буду, но в нотах пометкой.
Даже хлеб – как в молитве – чтоб только сегодня прожить.
Даже в кружке вода – чтобы только сегодня напиться.
Дай мне только спокойную радость болеть и любить
И оставь только разуму злую способность трудиться.
И когда я Твой голос услышу – не в воздухе – в сердце, в крови,
И ладонь от лица отниму, перестав закрываться от ветра,
Я скажу тебе: «Господи, сколько труда и любви…»
Вот и все, чтобы знать, что Тобою я не был отвергнут.
Second poem, performed by Valentina Beletskaya:
К ТЕБЕ, О МАТЕРЬ ПРЕСВЯТАЯ
К Тебе, о Матерь Пресвятая,
Дерзаю вознести свой глас,
Лице слезами омывая:
Услышь меня в сей скорбный час.
Прими мои теплейшие моленья,
Мой дух от бед и зол избавь,
Пролей мне в сердце умиленье,
На путь спасения наставь.
Да буду чужд своей я воли,
Готов для Бога все терпеть,
Будь мне покров во горькой доле,
Не дай в печали умереть.
Ты всех прибежище несчастных,
За всех молитвенница нас;
О, защити, когда ужасный
Услышим судный Божий глас.
Когда закроет вечность время,
Глас трубный мертвых воскресит,
И книга совести все бремя
Грехов моих изобличит.
Покров Ты верным и ограда;
К Тебе молюся всей душой:
Спаси меня, моя отрада,
Умилосердись надо мной!
Third poem, performed by Alexander Markov:
Однажды странствуя среди долины дикой,
Незапно был объят я скорбию великой
И тяжким бременем подавлен и согбен,
Как тот, кто на суде в убийстве уличен.
Потупя голову, в тоске ломая руки,
Я в воплях изливал души пронзенной муки
И горько повторял, метаясь как больной:
„Что делать буду я? Что станется со мной?“
И так я сетуя в свой дом пришел обратно
10Уныние мое всем было непонятно.
При детях и жене сначала я был тих
И мысли мрачные хотел таить от них;
Но скорбь час от часу меня стесняла боле;
И сердце наконец раскрыл я по неволе.
„О горе, горе нам! Вы, дети, ты жена! —
Сказал я, — ведайте: моя душа полна
Тоской и ужасом, мучительное бремя
Тягчит меня. Идет! уж близко, близко время:
Наш город пламени и ветрам обречен;
20Он в угли и золу вдруг будет обращен,
И мы погибнем все, коль не успеем вскоре
Обресть убежище; а где? о горе, горе!“
Мои домашние в смущение пришли
И здравый ум во мне расстроенным почли.
Но думали, что ночь и сна покой целебный
Охолодят во мне болезни жар враждебный.
Я лег, но во всю ночь всё плакал и вздыхал
И ни на миг очей тяжелых не смыкал.
Поутру я один сидел, оставя ложе.
30Они пришли ко мне; на их вопрос, я то же,
Что прежде, говорил. Тут ближние мои,
Не доверяя мне, за должное почли
Прибегнуть к строгости. Они с ожесточеньем
Меня на правый путь и бранью и презреньем
Старались обратить. Но я, не внемля им,
Всё плакал и вздыхал, унынием тесним.
И наконец они от крика утомились
И от меня, махнув рукою, отступились
Как от безумного, чья речь и дикий плач
40Докучны, и кому суровый нужен врач.
Пошел я вновь бродить — уныньем изнывая
И взоры вкруг себя со страхом обращая,
Как узник, из тюрьмы замысливший побег,
Иль путник, до дождя спешащий на ночлег.
Духовный труженик — влача свою веригу,
Я встретил юношу, читающего книгу.
Он тихо поднял взор — и вопросил меня,
О чем, бродя один, так горько плачу я?
И я в ответ ему: „Познай мой жребий злобный:
50Я осужден на смерть и позван в суд загробный —
И вот о чем крушусь: к суду я не готов,
И смерть меня страшит.“
— „Коль жребий твой таков, —
Он возразил, — и ты так жалок в самом деле,
Чего ж ты ждешь? зачем не убежишь отселе?“
И я: „Куда ж бежать? какой мне выбрать путь?“
Тогда: „Не видишь ли, скажи, чего-нибудь“ —
Сказал мне юноша, даль указуя перстом.
Я оком стал глядеть болезненно-отверстым,
Как от бельма врачом избавленный слепец.
60„Я вижу некий свет“, — сказал я наконец.
„Иди ж, — он продолжал: — держись сего ты света;
Пусть будет он тебе [единственная] мета,
Пока ты тесных врат [спасенья] не достиг,
Ступай!“ — И я бежать пустился в тот же миг.
Побег мой произвел в семье моей тревогу,
И дети и жена кричали мне с порогу,
Чтоб воротился я скорее. Крики их
На площадь привлекли приятелей моих;
Один бранил меня, другой моей супруге
70Советы подавал, иной жалел о друге,
Кто поносил меня, кто на смех подымал,
Кто силой воротить соседям предлагал;
Иные уж за мной гнались; но я тем боле
Спешил перебежать городовое поле,
Дабы скорей узреть — оставя те места,
Спасенья верный путь и тесные врата.
Fourth Poem, performed by Valentina Beletskaya
Рассвет на рельсах
Покамест день не встал
С его страстями стравленными,
Из сырости и шпал
Из сырости — и свай,
Из сырости — и серости.
Покамест день не встал
И не вмешался стрелочник.
Туман еще щадит,
Еще в холсты запахнутый
Спит ломовой гранит,
Полей не видно шахматных…
Из сырости — и стай…
Еще вестями шалыми
Лжет вороная сталь -
Еще Москва за шпалами!
Так, под упорством глаз -
Россия — в три полотнища!
И — шире раскручу!
По сырости пущу
Вагоны с погорельцами:
С пропавшими навек
Для Бога и людей!
(Знак: сорок человек
И восемь лошадей).
Так, посредине шпал,
Где даль шлагбаумом выросла,
Из сырости и шпал,
Из сырости — и сирости,
Покамест день не встал
С его страстями стравленными -
Во всю горизонталь
Без низости, без лжи:
Даль — да две рельсы синие…
Эй, вот она! — Держи!
По линиям, по линиям…