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Friday, 19 March 2010

Victor Avilov and The Moscow Theatre of the South West

Just back in Moscow I headed for my favourite bookshop in town. Falanster, an anarchist, leftist bookshop with the lowest prices and best variety of books in Moscow. I immediately searched in the cinema section and found a new book of Yuri Tsivian's articles, and nearby I discovered a biography of the actor Victor Avilov. This took me back to 2001-2002 when I spent my first year in Moscow studying Russian at the Moscow State Pedagogical University with a small group of Chinese and South Korean students. This university was located not far from the Theatre Studio of the South-West and although I soon moved to the North West of the City in Kuntsevo there was a collective taxi (marshrutka) which would take me both to the theatre and to university. In spite of knowing little Russian, I went three or four times a week to the theatre and this particular theatre was my particular favourite. There were a number of plays I would watch spellbound even though not understanding much of the nuance of the narrative - sometimes I would return two or three times to the same play (theatre prices were extremely low at that time - two to four UK Pounds). The style of acting was so unlike other theatres in Moscow. Being such a small theatre it had an intimate feel. I now consider myself extremely fortunate to have been able to witness what in retrospect some consider one of the most extraordinary Russian theatre and film actors of the late twentieth century, Victor Avilov.

Unfortunately, little of Avilov's brilliance as an actor comes across in his cinematic roles. Perhaps only the flawed but interesting Gospodin Oformitel' (translated clumsily as Mister Designer) manages to portray the extraordinary qualities of the actor Avilov through which he realized hiimself and his roles in this theatre. The biography of Avilov by Natalia Staroselskaya is an interesting account of how he became such a spellbinding actor. The Theatre Studio of the South-West was a theatre which existed almost outside of the Soviet theatre system. More than Liubimov's Theatre on the Taganka (perhaps the theatre symbol of the generation of the 'shiestdesiatniki' (the sixties generation of the Thaw), it was a theatre of non-professional actors and managed to express (more than most other theatres) the ethos of a later generation in which the illusions of the Thaw had all died.

Victor Avilov was a lorry driver who had known the theatre director Valery Belyakovich's brother in his school years and had no professional training in acting whatsoever. The development of this actor from starring roles in light comedies and farces in the early years of the theatre to some great roles of absurd theatre(such as Ionesco's 'Rhinoceros') to tragic roles (including a splendid performance of Hamlet which was wildly received at the Edinburgh festival and was deemed by Japanese theatre goers to have been the very best Hamlet they had seen performed)is exceptionally well recounted by the author of this biography. Other great roles he was to play included that of Voland in Master and Margerita as well as Caligula in Camus's play of the same title. He, also, arguably helped to create one of the better recent productions of Gorky's 'The Lower Depths'.

Apparently the first mention of this theatre abroad was provoked by a visit to the theatre by a British photo-journalist who was to witness a fight outside the theatre. Former owners of the building were beating the theatre director Valery Belyakovich due to a dispute over the ownership of the building when out stepped two actors in female dress rehearsing for a farce(one of these 'transvestites' was Victor Avilov)and proceded to defend their owner with their fists. Apparently according to Staroselskaya this theatre then gained a small reputation in Britain as the theatre of Moscow's riff-raff.

One of the few mentions I have been able to find in the British press is an article by John Fowler in the Glasgow Herald from August 25th 1987 comparing it to Grotowski's Poor Theatre. Fowler describes the founding of the theatre, Belyakovich's insistence on using non-trained actors who had not moved through the Soviet theatrical schools and the collective and egalitarian ethos of the theatre but he was signally unable to quite understand much more of the principles behind the theatre - he calls Belyakovich a 'terse communicator' and said that Avilov was reluctant to discuss the subject of his transformation from lorry driver to becoming a world-class actor. The theatre found greater success in Japan where they would return to for many repeat tours.

My own memory of Avilov was his ability to completely hynoptise the audience and I remember that on my later trips (when Avilov acted more rarely) I was often disappointed that some of the plays lost their force without his entrancing presence- the Master & Margerita which I saw without him was, alas, a definite flop (although I have heard that most recently their production of this seminal work has improved). His greatest roles were arguably those of Voland, Hamlet, Caligula, and Berenger in Rhinoceros by Ionesco. I myself have memories of his unforgettable performances in Walpurgis Night by Venedikt Yerofeyev and in Dostoyevsky Trip by Vladimir Sorokin. His last cinema role was, apparently, that of Meyerkhold in a film by Semyon Ryabikov called 'Zolotaya golova na plakhe'.


  1. Fascinating. I studied Russian at MGPI imeni Lenina (as it was then) at Yugo Zapad in Soviet times - summer term 1984 - in a British student exchange group, and saw an early Theatre at Yugo Zapad production in 1987 - afraid that all I remember of it now (may have been Master & Margarita, but can't guarantee..) was the scrum to get in. As foreigners we were too hesitant and got left outside, but then they let everyone in anyway, as apparently they always did. It had a do-it-yourself, underground atmosphere that marked it out from other theatre available at that time in Moscow.

    1. I studied Russian there -Hungarian group - in 1985, and saw "Marriage" by Gogol, with the music -to my surprise-: The B'52s....:)

  2. Thanks for your comment Alex- fascinating to know something about the theatre in Soviet times. It still has (or had because I haven't been back to the cinema for a few years) a fairly alternative non-established feel to it. Now, though, all tickets are reported to be sold at least a month or two ahead- they were fairly hard to obtain in 2002 too. In the UK I have an album stating all the productions and when they were first staged with some great stills. Hopefully, if I get back to Russia in the next year or so I'll try and get to see at least another production. It still has a good reputation even, though, I imagine it will be hard to find another actor of Avilov's magnetism and presence. One superb production that I remember watching was of Erdman's 'Suicide' with Vyachelsav Grishechkin. They appear to have a website which is, it appears, only in Russian:

  3. He actually had a starring role as the count of Monte-Cristo in Russian version of the Dumas classic. The movie is called "The prisoner of Chateu d'If".

  4. Yes, I've heard of it but have yet to watch it. His acting is said to be the best aspect of the film. Look forward to watching it one day.