The Theatre of Vladimir Vysotsky

Vladimir Vysotsky was both a poet and an actor.  These two guises, two vocations are impossible to pull apart, to separate one from the other, let alone to try and determine which of the two was more important for him  –  writing poems and singing songs or performing in theatre and movies.

One muse was feeding the other.  The acting background he received at the Moscow Art Theatre School helped him get the feel of the protagonists from his numerous songs, or climb into their skin, as Konstantin Stanislavsky, one of the Moscow Art Theatre School's founders, used to say.

Theatre, the Taganka Drama and Comedy Theatre to be precise, became the launching pad for his future singer-songwriter fame.  It wasn't in a close circle of friends that Vysotsky's songs were heard for the very first time, but in front of a mixed audience in 1965 during the production of "Ten Days that Shook the World" based on a book by John Reed. 

The reverse relationship was true as well.  There is no doubt that his poetic gift, more than the legendary Yuri Lyubimov's strong directing arm, helped him embody on stage one of the most complex characters of world drama – Prince Hamlet from Shakespeare's tragedy.  Vysotsky wrote the poem "My Hamlet" about the work he did for this role. 

Few actors have the right to say it like that – "My Hamlet".  It is not enough to play the role of the Prince of Denmark, even though this honor falls only to a select few.  One needs to try and live the life of Shakespeare's protagonist.    Vysotsky managed to do just that.

He received his Hamlet in 1971. The path toward this role was neither very long nor particularly thorny.  After he graduated from the Moscow Art Theatre School in 1960, Vysotsky wandered around from company to company for all of four years before finding his theatre.  He was accepted into the Taganka four months after that theatre was born.  He didn't get to play lead roles right away, but already two years later he had his first big theatrical success –  the part of Galileo Galilei in the production based on a play by Brecht.  Afterwards Vysotsky would say numerous times that he considers the part of Galileo to be one of the most important ones in his theatre biography: "When I began rehearsing for the part of  Galileo, I was only twenty-six or twenty-seven years old.  I was playing him with my own face...  And, despite the fact that at the end of the play he is a decrepit old man, I take a salient peculiarity in Galileo and do a perfect portrayal of an old man with  lackluster eyes.  He is not interested in anything; he's this slightly demented man.  And he moves his hands slowly.  And there is absolutely no need to make oneself up for that.  Well, I think so at least." 

It is customary to regard the Taganka Theatre as purely a director's theatre, where actors were turned virtually into marionettes.   These notions are, of course,  distorted.  Yes, Lyubimov's theatre was ultra-conditional, with Brecht-like detachment (it was by no means a detachment from the events that were taking place within the country, however), and ruled by a strict, heavy director's hand.  Yet there was room in that system for vibrant acting personalities.   

Following his rise – the role of Galileo – Vysotsky narrowly escaped the fall.  He became too famous as a singer of his own songs; he was performing in concerts that were mostly clandestine and quasi-legal.  He began to be invited to play lead roles in movies.  Lyubimov believed that this was detrimental to his work in the theatre because it was taking up too much time.

Conflicts arose over another issue as well.  Concerts and  trips to movie shoots often ended with drunken parties, where Vysotsky took an active part, and theatrical productions were in danger of being disrupted.  Things have gotten to the point where the theatre director didn't believe the actor, when the latter told him that he simply lost his voice.  Lyubimov was convinced that this was related to his drinking.  Vysotsky was the only one playing Galileo, there was no alternate; and so they were forced to do a replacement show.   The replacement was arranged in a manner that was rather theatrical and humiliating for the lead performer. Nikolai Dupak, the theatre's administrative director, led Vysotsky out onto the stage, showed him off to the audience and announced that the actor has lost his voice, and, as a result, a different production would be shown.

Following this incident, Lyubimov began bringing in other actors for the role of Galileo.  Vysotsky was switched to a contract employee status at the rate of 100 rubles. A leading actor who had by then already become a folk idol!

Eventually the crisis was overcome.  But these types of clashes occurred time and time again.  Vysotsky would promise to clean up his act, play bit parts, but then he would slip again and disrupt "Galileo", and he was even replaced with a different actor.   Moreover, Lyubimov even went as far as to fire Vysotsky in accordance with Article 47 – for misconduct.  But then reinstated him later.  The director flat out didn't like the other performer of the part of Galileo. 

At some point Lyubimov realized that Vysotsky was absolutely vital to the theatre.  Exactly the way he was, with drinking benders, sudden disappearances to Magadan or to the gold mines in the far-away Siberia, with constant threats of disruption.  This did, of course, lead to discontent among the other actors, many of whom were far from abstainers: why is Vysotsky allowed to do it; what is he, special?  

He was, indeed, special.  And he was the only one Lyubimov saw in the role of Hamlet in the production that he had already conceived back then.  And for that he was willing to make any sacrifice.  Yes, any theatre company is a terrarium of like-minded thinkers.  Yet back in those days Yuri Lyubimov could  subdue the actors' grumbling like no one else.   

"Hamlet" with Vysotsky appeared on stage in November of 1971 and immediately caused quite a shock.  The audience wasn't expecting a Prince of Denmark quite like that one, and  it wasn't accepted right away and not by everyone.  Alexander Anikst, the biggest authority on Shakespeare in the USSR, recalled the following about the premiere: "There was a heavy wool curtain moving like a living being, but of course in the center of it all was Vysotsky.  Hamlet.  He was sitting on the floor by the back wall of a brightly lit stage, wearing all black.  He was holding a guitar....

Thus instantly became determined the essence of the new Hamlet.  For those who were thinking 'academically', both Vysotsky and the guitar were sacrilege. For those who lived in the present, the production and the image of the protagonist instantly became tangible .  This was our Hamlet, a man of our time.  This Hamlet would suffer the pain and torment of our time...  In the play's climax, the image of the Prince of Denmark merges with the image of the poet, and not just that of the actor."

This was written many years after 1971.  I knew Anikst, and when I asked him about Vysotsky in the role of Hamlet, he confessed that he not only disliked the former, but was, in fact, revolted by him.   

The great Shakespearean scholar was cut off from life to such a point that he didn't even know Vysotsky by sight. When he met a short stocky jeans and sweater-clad man of a rather "average appearance" in the office of the chief administrator, it didn't even occur to him that that man was an actor.  And when that same man came on stage with a guitar, and Anikst understood that that man was to play Prince Hamlet himself,  he was baffled.  But then he watched the production a few more times and gradually became used to it.

And why should it be necessary that Hamlet wear a medieval costume anyway? In Shakespeare's age theatre actors played the parts of the Romans and the ancient Greeks, while wearing the costumes of the time.  Plus content is much more important than form.   

Vysotsky was able to talk about the content of his role, the way he understood it.  "I was playing Hamlet, while being the exact same age that Shakespeare noted for the Prince of Denmark.  I felt myself his peer.  That helped me.   

We staged 'Hamlet' the way that Shakespeare himself would have likely wanted it to be staged.  The director, the entire company wanted to stage this tragedy so as to please Shakespeare.   The first thing we did was to forsake all splendor.  Those were rough times.  Sweaters, wool - that was the clothing.  We even managed to make the curtain perform in the play: it was a regular curtain at times and a personification of fate at others.   

I wasn't playing a boy who doesn't know what he wants; he was raised from a young age to be king.  He was ready to ascend to the throne, but he was conflicted.  He was trying to break free of the world that surrounded him - he was highly educated, he could be gentle.  But he had to resort to the methods of the society that disgusted him, that he had broken away from.  And so he ended up with one foot there and one foot here...  

Of course this role did not come easy for me.  Over three hours of uninterrupted work on stage - and all in one breath.  This is one of my favorite roles.  It wasn't an easy one; even now I push myself to the limit every time. Sometimes I feel like this is it, this is my last time, I won't be able to do this anymore.   I am not playing the Prince of Denmark.  I am trying to give the audience a modern man.   Maybe even myself."

Vysotsky's Hamlet changed over the years, becoming older, wiser and more and more tragic.  Alla Demidova, who was playing the role of Gertrude all those years, saw this evolution from within:

"Vysotsky's Hamlet when he began playing him in 1971 and his last Hamlet - those are two different people, with completely different worldviews.  In the beginning he was playing Hamlet with such a strong explosive plasticity, a man, for whom there was no question of 'not to be', there was only' to be', a breakthrough, and inexhaustible optimism.   He finished this role an absolute philosopher, a wise man with clear responsibility before life, people, before the irresolvable questions: to be or not to be."

I saw this production in 1979. It was a Hamlet, who became disillusioned in the values of existence and mesmerized by the enigma of death.  Every actor who plays this role has a certain key episode, a key moment.  For Innokenti Smoktunovsky  it was a scene in Grigori Kozintsev's movie, where he hands a flute to Gildenstern and asks him to play, and when the latter refuses, he utters the famous phrase: "Though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me."

For Vysotsky that episode was the scene with the gravediggers and the soliloquy with Yorick's skull in his hands.  A clear parallel could be drawn with the lines from Vysotsky's song "Fastidious Horses": "If my time has run out, let me finish my song!"

Alla Demidova again: "He played his last Hamlet on July 18, 1980.  He wasn't feeling well at all, he had preinfarction angina. He was extremely pale.  During intermissions he would run backstage; there was a doctor on call there who gave him shots.  After the shots he would feel a little better. 

That summer in Moscow was very hot, and when we would come out for curtain calls, we'd be practically crawling from exhaustion.  We were, after all, playing in very thick hand-knitted sweaters.  Volodya changed his sweater three times, and we would all crawl out dripping wet from exhaustion, and virtually no one was saying anything anymore, not even Volodya . And when I teased, 'How about it, guys, I dare you to do another one,' nobody even responded to my joke.   And only Volodya turned to me abruptly and said, 'You dare us, you say, alright, let's do it.'  I told him, 'No way, Volodya, let's just wait and play on July 27.'  But that was not to be."

Vladimir Vysotsky died on July 25.  Till his dying day he never allowed himself to be lax when he went on stage.  He was only doing three productions – in addition to "Hamlet", there was "The Cherry Orchard" and "Crime and Punishment".

"The Cherry Orchard" was staged by guest director Anatoly Efros, for whom Lyubimov had made an exception and who did a lot of work with Vysotsky in radio shows.   Their Lopakhin  – a peasant who struck it rich and bought a cherry orchard from its broke owners – was hopelessly tragic.  The common thread that ran through the performance of this character could be defined as a yearning for a better life.

Vysotsky's Svidrigailov was no less tragic a figure.  Dostoevsky's secondary character became a central figure in the production.  Such was the power of the actor and his moral torment leading to suicide, that they eclipsed the crime and punishment of the formally principal character Raskolnikov.

His last role further emphasized, confirmed and completed the leitmotif that runs through all of Vysotsky's theatre works and the one he himself defined in the poem "My Hamlet": 

The splash of genius resembles a delusion,

And in our birth death peers through askance.

And our captious answer we keep posing

Whilst failing to find the question we should ask.


Nikolai Troitsky


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