For the last 30 years, Alla Sergeyevna Demidova has been one of Russia's preeminent actresses. She has a round, distinctly Russian face whose almond-shaped gray eyes reflect one minute the elegance and distance befitting a leading lady who has played Gertrude in Hamlet and Renevskaya in The Cherry Orchard, the next minute the warmth and passion of an artist who holds nothing back.
Demidova lives with her husband, a successful screenwriter named Vladimir Valutsky, her father-in-law, two cats, and two dogs in an elegantly furnished and unusually large flat in the center of Moscow. In the apartment next door lived a mistress of the former head of the secret police, the notorious Lavrenty Beria; throughout the building are other members of the political and cultural elite who shaped the life of the former Soviet Union.
Saturday, Demidova brings one aspect of that life to Chicago. Produced by David Eden, an emigre from Riga, Silenced Voices will be performed by Claire Bloom reading (in English) and Demidova reading (in Russian) from the works of two Soviet poets, Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetayeva, both of whom were silenced for much of their lives for their refusal to live and work according to the conventions of socialist realism. (Soprano Susan Roberts joins them for the second act, singing several of the poems in Russian.) The two actresses in this traveling program complement each other splendidly: Bloom is the cool English lady, Demidova the dramatic and passionate Russian.
Among Russia's intelligentsia, says Demidova, nostalgia for the days of the Soviet Union--when fighting the state provided them with a clarity of vision and sense of purpose--is palpable. "You understood who was who and what was what. The authorities were there to be resisted."
Her career illustrates this resistance. Demidova began at the Taganka, an experimental theater founded in 1964 by director Yuri Liubimov. Whatever happened at the Taganka would reverberate throughout the cultural and social life of Russia. Muscovites hoping to purchase a ticket would begin lining up in the middle of the night; students from Leningrad would take the overnight train to Moscow for a ticket that might be available at the last minute on the street.
"Imagine a sealed boiling pot," Demidova said. "The hole that lets the steam out of the pot was the hole through which people could breathe. The Taganka was to theater what samizdat was to literature. Without it, society would have exploded."
Last year, after leaving the United States, Demidova went to Tokyo, where she performed in Liubimov's productions of Boris Godunov and Crime and Punishment.
"Our performance of Boris Godunov is 10 years old and Crime and Punishment is 15," she said. "All over the world in every art the language that was defined in the 1960s has come to its end. There is the urge for something new. I think that the prospectus for this is in confronting, in joining, the cultures. That's what my collaboration a few years ago with Antoine Vitez of the Comedie-Francaise meant. His last shows before he died were wonderful, but he sensed he needed something new. I think that's why he went to Russia, to confront the Russian and French ways of acting. Russians act with their souls. If you are a Russian onstage, people will know you. They will know what you eat, what you read, who are all your friends. You can lock yourself up privately, but not onstage. The greater your talent, the more naked you are. In France it's completely the opposite. The bigger your talent, the more you mask yourself with your role.
"Vitez let me choose whatever I wanted to do," she continued. "I was to play the lead in Phaedra, but he died a month before the rehearsals were to begin. We weren't going to use the version by Euripides or the one by Tsvetayeva, but Racine's because it was French. The main question of Phaedra is, "Who will judge us for our secret thoughts?' In Euripides, it's the gods who punish Phaedra for the sin of loving her stepson; in Racine she explodes with that sin; in Tsvetayeva she hangs herself. I'm not sure of the right answer, but I like Euripides' idea. It's the gods' business."
Demidova recently completed a movie version of Dostoyevski's The Possessed, acting for free after being told that her salary, set under an old contract, would be only 1,600 rubles, or about three dollars at the time (now less than one dollar). "This reality is an ugly and absurd reality," she added. Nevertheless Moscow, she thinks, is a good place to live these days.
"We gave the world Stravinsky for music, Kandinsky and Malevich for art, Chekhov for drama, Tolstoy and Dostoyevski for prose, Stanislavsky for theater," she said. "That process died out in the 1930s. But now it's coming back. Look at Paris. Russian artists live there and define the weather; they dictate the taste." She paused for a minute. "Russian blood, I am sure, will rejuvenate the world."
Silenced Voices will be performed Saturday at 8 PM at the Rubloff Auditorium of the Art Institute of Chicago, Michigan at Adams. Tickets are $22 and are available by calling Performing Arts Chicago at (312) 722-5463.