Vladimir Korenev is one of the most prominent figures in Russian cinema. Back in the 1960s, the audience fell in love with his Ichthyander character in 'The Amphibian Man' movie. His peers wanted to look like him, and girls flooded the handsome actor with love letters.
More than 50 years ago, Korenev came to the Moscow Stanislavsky Drama Theatre and eventually became a lead actor. New life of the Stanislavsky Electro Theatre started in 2015 with a fantastic performance of 'The Bluebird', starring Vladimir Korenev and his wife Aleftina Konstantinova as Tiltil and Mitil. The theatre's new play 'Sunset Boulevard Maids' is the first actor's work as a director on the stage he used to perform on.
— Vladimir, your performance is based on two works - Jean Genet's play 'The Maids' and the 'Sunset Boulevard' film by Billy Wilder. What have both of them brought to your performance? What is your production about?
Watch the performance and you will understand. It is impossible to explain in short if you haven’t seen the Wilder's film and haven’t read the play. To be honest, I would be surprised to know someone read it. I read it when I was 60. It is a very sophisticated book. A very rich woman, Madame, lives in a luxurious flat with two maids, young sisters Solange and Claire. Madame has a lover, who is put into prison. Maids admire the life their hostess leads, they are captivated by all this glamour. And finally, it becomes their obsession.
I thought the boundaries of the story needed some extension. In particular, the protagonist may be not just a rich woman people envy and admire, but a really talented person, a star, an actress. And two girls, the maids, fall in love with her screen images, get to her house, try to do something special for her. But she mistreats them, she doesn’t care about them. And at the end, it turns out that nobody cares for her as well. They begin to hate her and realise the tragedy that has happened in their life. To put it simply, that's what I have tried to bring into this performance.
— In Russia, 'The Maids’ was a really famous performance thanks to Roman Viktyuk’s production. Did you see that play?
Yes, I did, and more than once. It’s just perfect, wonderful, gorgeous, it’s toured the whole world.
— Roman features it as a mix of Kabuki theatre, improvisation and dance…
Indeed, he made a performance of existential form and content. But what happened to the story? Roman decided to use not a common theatre language, but the language of dance blending it with ballet. I was very interested in this story, I wanted to work on it. I used to wonder why other theatres did not stage this play. After all, it can be really beautiful.
— But in visual terms, your performance is not inferior to Roman's production. In particular, you have an outstanding scenery, made of black and white recycled cellophane packages.
Yes, it was Anastasia Nefedova's idea, our Art Director. It was rather weird, and I didn’t support it first, because I knew that my actors wouldn’t approve new scenery and costumes. Gradually, all got used to them, and now they even love them.
But the play itself is above all. I’d like to say thank you to Boris Yukhananov, who gave me the opportunity to experiment with this highly dangerous material – such plays easily fail. So I decided to do the things people of my profession know well. I’ve seen a lot of actors’ fans in my life, fans who actually pursue us. What drives them? Why is it so important for them?
— After you played Ichthyander in 'The Amphibian Man', you were just crazy popular. Is it true that you received such a huge pile of letters you had to put them into fridge-size carton boxes?
Yes, that's true. But I didn't answer, there were too many of them. To cope with this, I would have to give up all my other business. Although occasionally I replied to some really interesting letters. As you know, it’s not philosophers who write letters to young actors, but young girls who have just fallen in love with an image you have created. But it was very pleasant, for sure, to experience such a nice attitude towards you.
— A fame like this, is it a very tough challenge or quite the opposite?
You have to pass the test. To go through the success mill. And it can be really hard. I managed to escape it somehow. I had wise parents and good friends. And eventually it becomes clear that you have to be up to this popularity. You cannot live your entire life as a Narcissus looking in the mirror, "I am so handsome, thanks God!'' You are to strive for something more. Like Misha Kozakov, who also played in 'The Amphibian Man'. He could just go on playing a part of a well-known handsome man and that would be enough. But he became engaged in directing, making films. 'The Pokrovskie Gate' is an excellent movie. You respect those people who apply their talents, not just a handsome look.
"It turned out a completely different story''
— Is 'Sunset Boulevard Maids' your debut as a director?
Not actually. I also adapted for stage the novel 'Dangerous Liaisons' by Choderlos de Laclos at the Arkhangelsk Lomonosov Drama Theatre. It is a spacious theatre accommodating fifteen hundred spectators. The audience appreciated the performance, we had some sold-out shows. Also, I headed Faculty of Drama at the Institute of Humanities and Information Technology for 12 years, I staged several performances with graduate students every year. And I staged a lot of passages too. So it's not really a debut. I just do what I want to, and I have a possibility to do it.
— Do you feel more comfortable as a director or as an actor?
It's impossible to make a difference. What is the process actors and directors are engaged in? Psychological analysis. What delights an actor? The ability to swim in the ocean of the proposed circumstances created by an author. Every day they are different. The same with directing. As a rule, directors are former actors. Maybe I just wanted to try something new. When you stage something, you act all parts in your mind, experience them first-hand. In art, everything depends on your personality. The more you differ from others, the better. The more you steer clear from some generally recognised rules, the more interest you generate.
Let me tell you a story. One day a young playwright came to Konstantin Stanislavsky and said, "I want some interesting topic for my play." Stanislavsky replied, "Well, something like that. A young man went abroad. Then he came back to find his girlfriend in love with another man." The playwright said, "But that's so trite." And Stanislavsky replied, "That’s the plot of Alexander Griboyedov's 'Woe from Wit.'’’ It is very important to have a different point of view. I think it's wonderful. So my story about the maids is quite different.
— Do you plan to stage something else in the nearest future?
I don't know yet, it depends. You never know whether your performance will be successful or not. I hope the audience will appreciate it. One thing is for sure, we’ve poured a lot of passion and love into this performance. We try to make it easy to understand for viewers, we want them to be moved by the story. If it works, I hope Boris will give me an opportunity to stage something else. I’d like to mention that my actors are just fantastic. I'm very proud of them. They act in this sophisticated story with such an ease and inner freedom, that’s amazing.
"My wife is a better actor than me''
— Your daughter Irina plays one of the parts in this performance. In 'The Bluebird', you take the stage with your wife Aleftina. Working with your family may be tough, isn’t it?
It depends. My daughter is a very difficult person. When it comes to arguing, sparks really fly. She’s very independent. And my wife is an outstanding artist. We happened to play very rarely in the same performances. But she's just a great actress, much better than me.
— 'The Bluebird' play is a hot ticket at the Stanislavsky Electro Theatre. Did you immediately say yes, when Boris Yukhananov invited you to participate in it? Or did the project seem too extreme to you?
When Boris told me about it, I was really shocked. I asked him, "Do you think it’s easy to play a boy at my age?'’ And he replied, "When you come to the children's theatre, you know that it's an actress who plays this part." She speaks like a child, but in five minutes you get used to it. These are the rules of the game.
And Yukhananov added, "You and your wife have gone the same way those brother and sister have - to seek happiness, the meaning of our life. And when your story intervenes with this boy and girl’s story, the audience will think and reflect on what happens to these heroes next."
— For you, it is not a seven-year-old boy part, but also your memories, your personal stories, isn't it?
Yes, it is, taking into account that my wife and I had a rather hard life. Aleftina saw her mother killed during the war. I have seen so much sadness and tragedy in my life as well. And happiness, too, of course. Boris is absolutely right, 'The Bluebird' is not a children’s story. There's an old Hollywood movie starring Elizabeth Taylor based on this piece. I think this movie is a failure, because it’s not clear whether it’s for children or adults. But our performance is for adult audience, that's for sure. And Maurice Maeterlinck is a deep philosopher. It’s not just entertainment he wrote this play for. And Boris came up with an absolutely innovative idea: I don't play on stage, I'm an ordinary person who talks to the audience.