Galina Konovalova: ‘I admired every single thing I did’

Holly Williams, The Independent from 4 November, 2012

As the formidable actress,
97, treads the West End boards in ‘Uncle
Vanya’, she tells Holly Williams of her late and sudden rise to fame

There are not many professions in which you expect to
be working at 95. There are even fewer where you might suddenly become famous
at 95. But that’s what has happened to Russian actress Galina Lvovna
Konovalova. Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, et al – eat your heart out… Konovalova
proves there’s no age limit on star quality.

has given her whole life to one theatre: she entered the B V Schukin
Theater School in Moscow at 17, then joined its parent company, the Vakhtangov
Theatre, in 1938, and has been there ever since. Admittedly, this is less
unusual in Russian theatre, where company line-ups commonly remain unchanged,
but it’s still pretty rare to get your big break after 70 years.

2007, the Vakhtangov Theatre got an injection of new life with the arrival of
Lithuanian director Rimas Tuminas. He cast Konovalova as the nurse, Marina, in
his unconventional production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in 2009; a
hit show, it’s still played in rep, and is about to enjoy a short run in the West End. While Konovalova has long been a matriarchal
figure behind the scenes, on stage she’d always been a bit-part player.

Tuminas saw something in her; soon, audiences and critics did too. “The
most unexpected [performances], however, were not really the main parts,”
noted Roman Dolzhansky in the Russian newspaper Kommersant,
“elderly nanny Marina… performed by Galina Konovalova became cheerful,
young, powdered and flirty, with a clear voice Ω a kind of ironic old mermaid”.
Konovalova, now 97, has had several acclaimed roles since, including a
life-imitating-art role as an ageing actress in The Haven.

Rimas came, I had an entirely different life,” she says, when I meet her
and a translator backstage at the Vakhtangov Theatre, a grand venue on Arbat
Street in the historical heart of Moscow. “He saw the character in me and
gave me work and of course I’m grateful.” But, like a good loyal company
member, she explains it’s about “giving all your soul” to whatever
role you’re playing. “I have lived all my life in this theatre, spent my
youth and all my days here, and my feeling of success does not depend on this
success – it depends on everything I have done here. They were maybe tiny,
small parts, but I admired every single thing I did.”

certainly has a thoroughgoing work ethic. Konovalova concludes our interview
barely 10 minutes before the curtain goes up on Uncle Vanya. When I
timidly ask if she ever gets a bit tired by the three-hour play, she dismisses
the idea with a wave, prompting an angry jangling of silver bangles: “I
feel perfectly well on stage – I am much healthier on stage than in real life.
I suddenly forget about every single ache.” She doesn’t understand the
concept of retiring, it seems; her husband, Vladimir Osenev, also a celebrated
actor with the same company, performed until his death in 1977.

has lived through times of astonishing change within Russia. Born in 1915, she was an
infant during the 1917 revolution that toppled the Tsar. In the Second World
War, after a bomb partially destroyed the theatre, killing several actors, the
company evacuated to the Siberian city of Omsk
for two years. “I still consider it the best period of my entire
life,” she says. “We were always hungry, we were always cold, but
despite all these things we performed there our best performances.” Such
was their hunger, at a lavish New Year party for the Regional Party Committee
in 1942, the actors spent most of the time trying to hide fruit and cheese and
even decanters of wine under their clothes.

there were the years of Communist censorship; thanks to Central Committee’s
1946 cultural decrees, the company were effectively forced to stage on-message,
if artistically weak, plays: “It was a ‘recommendation’ from above; a
strong recommendation!” Their tactic was to intersperse these with
classics to which there could be no objection, but still spoke to the political
circumstances. For the fiercely proud Konovalova, the Vakhtangov theatre
“managed to remain, during all those years, a highly intellectual part of
society”. It gained greater freedom during the post-Stalin
“thaw” of the mid-Fifties, although censorship remained until the
demise of state agency Glavlit in 1991.

formidable looking woman, Konovalova is fond of banging the table to make a
point Ω and it gets a
good rap on the subject of the post-glasnost commercialisation, and dumbing
down, of Russian theatre. Thick make-up in no way softens her direct gaze, but
there’s a wicked glint of humour. Tuminas spied it too: “I first noticed …
her very independent spirit. She’s a unique person Ω and she has an amazing sense of humour,”
he tells me after the show. He has her toying with strings of pearls and hooting
with laughter in Uncle Vanya; she may be one of the oldest actresses you’ll see
on stage, but she’s also one of the most flamboyant.

ThisUncle Vanya may be performed in Russian – there will be English
subtitles in the West End – by a long-running Russian company, but it caused a
sensation in Moscow
in rejecting Chekhovian tropes; as the programme notes threaten, “there
are no cosy armchairs, no table laid for lunch with a lacy tablecloth and hot
samovar”. Set in a large grey frame, it is resolutely non-naturalistic:
actors move in choreographed, filmic slow motion, or create vivid visual
montages; some are cartoonish and grotesque, while others have a languid,
sexual power. We may associate Chekhov with tragedy, but this production,
although violent and bleak, is also funny – as it should be, given Chekhov
considered his plays to be comedies as much as tragedies. Though if you thought
Benedict Andrews’s recent modern-day Three Sisters at the Young Vic
was a desecration, then Tuminas’s Uncle Vanya is also probably not for you.

this grande dame feel her national treasure has been violated? Not a bit.
Konovalova subscribes to the idea that Tuminas is getting back to the heart of
Chekhov’s text. “It’s not that he found something new and strange,”
she says. “He just chose the most important details; they’re very

this, Tuminas’s directorial style is arguably in keeping with the Russian
director who gives the theatre its name, Yevgeny Vakhtangov. Vakhtangov founded
the third studio of the Moscow Arts Theatre in 1920, and it became the
Vakhtangov Theatre after his death, aged just 39. “Russian theatre,”
says Tuminas, “would be completely different nowadays if it had
not been for the early death of Vakhtangov.”

was one of seminal theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski’s star pupils
and went on to reformulate his teacher’s theories to develop his own
“system” – if it can be called such, since he died before codifying
much of his practice – which has been called “fantastic realism”.
This style combines a Stanislavski-esque exploration of psychological
motivation to find a character’s “truth” with an ostentatious
theatricality, set off by colourful, brilliant sets and costumes.

I ask Tuminas about Vakhtangov’s style, the prickly director dismisses it:
“The system – it does not exist, it was invented by theorists. There is a
method: it is the method of working.” But Konovalova suggests that
“the group of students who continued [Vakhtangov’s] theatre had this
basis, and respected his way of working.” She should know – in the 1930s,
she studied under Vakhtangov’s original acolytes.

or no, Konovalova has been loyal to the Vakhtangov Theatre, and that long
service has been unexpectedly rewarded. At the end of Uncle Vanya, Konovalova
takes a bow, to a standing ovation. And she doesn’t look a bit tired.