King of the stage has proven himself

The Japanese believe that every person has their own God-given mission: their ikigai
The Japanese believe that every person has their own God-given mission: their ikigai. As Rostislav Yankovsky admits, the stage is his ikigai. He can do nothing more: neither plant flowers, nor cook, neither drive nor bring up children. His wife Nina oversees all these. Rostislav has no idea where some things can be found in his house but — on taking to the stage — he appears so practical. The People’s Artiste of the USSR is now celebrating his 85th birthday, receiving congratulations from the President on his lifetime of accomplishments.

Mr. Yankovsky always wanted to perform, being insatiable in this respect, ready to sacrifice everything to this altar. So long has his career been that he could surely rest but he prefers to continue performing, refusing to stand down from a show or tour even when hospital appointments are pressing. The theatre director is obliged to accommodate Rostslav’s enthusiasm and his doctors know not to argue!

At the Moscow Council Theatre, Mr. Yankovsky is now rehearsing for Delmir’s Silence is Farther, performing the male lead of Mr. Kuper, opposite no less famous Faina Ranevskaya, as his wife. Minsk’s Gorky Russian Theatre will then take on the show, altering it slightly: a true present to mark the actor’s birthday.

Theatre-goers often attend Mr. Yankovsky’s performances repeatedly: he may be the country’s best known star, having appeared not only on stage, but in films, music videos and soap operas. He is a public figure and the calling card of the theatre. He is its monarch and patriarch, holder of a wealth of theatrical awards and titles. He is a guru to the younger generation of actors and an honourable citizen of Minsk. None can rival him, although he dislikes the idea that he is ‘untouchable’, asking if this means none should criticize his performances. He stresses, “I appreciate constructive criticism, rather than critics’ censorship. I cannot understand the criteria of assessments applied by some in their reviews of performances. This area is characterised by unchanged personalities and assessments, except for three or four names. Where are the bold, argumentative and analytical new ideas?”

Mr. Yankovsky often argues with critics, becoming quite worked up: a love-hate relationship. I’ve heard so many offensive speeches from the actor that it seems unreasonable to be aggrieved. However, Mr. Yankovsky is forgiving and, after some time, is happy to accept another point of view. He even feels worried when critics keep silent. He certainly doesn’t keep an archive of his press coverage, being more likely to use such newspaper reporting to light the furnace at his summer cottage. As a friend, he is always generous, doing his best to help us with his status and influence.

I once asked Mr. Yankovsky how he managed to avoid scandal but he asserts that his life revolves around his family. “I don’t wish to be an oracle. My choice of profession and wife is all. I’m afraid to tempt Fate by calling myself a happy man but I’m pleased with what I have and with what I’ve achieved. It’s true happiness when you have someone who loves you and waits for you and when you have a job you enjoy. This is very simple but, simultaneously, complicated.”

Rostislav is the oldest in the Yankovskys dynasty. Of his younger brother, Oleg, he notes, “As he was growing up, Oleg was truly wicked but, on maturing, became educated and strict in his assessments. I was even afraid of his opinion of my roles, since he did not always praise me.” Oleg was actually grateful to his older brother for helping him.

Mr. Yankovsky many times sat at a royal table in his plays. In The Dinner, he played a cunning and powerful French minister, Taleiran, who was devoted to cognac and expensive food. Nothing was artificial, with real soup and ice cream eaten during the performance. The same situation occurred in a Moliere play, in which great Ludwig XIV, the King of France, was served a feast. Gourmet Yankovsky reigned over the table talk, sharp-tongued and cynical, full of psychological tricks and traps.

Mr. Yankovsky once said that he learnt how Chekhov loved to eat pancakes with caviar, starlet fish and small pies in taverns. Accordingly, he was convinced that an actor needed to eat all these dishes to understand Chekhov’s plays. Speaking of his own culinary preferences, Rostislav notes, “I love good cognac, delicate food, sauces, toppings, chakhokhbili, walnut sauces, lobio and khachapuri. My wife is Georgian. Some have an indifferent palate, eating canteen porridge and a delicate dish with equal enthusiasm. I can’t understand how it’s possible not to distinguish between cognacs or cake recipes. I love life. I’ve never been a businessman, concentrating only on the theatre, art, music, cinema, my wife, love, and children. I adore football, my dressing room and the scents of the stage. I’m afraid of tiredness — especially when I grow tired of surrounding silliness. It’s good to keep learning and never give up.”

By Tatiana Orlova
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