Storms, ash breezes and rainbows in Ivan Matskevich’s life

[b]Ivan Matskevich, Honoured Artiste of Belarus and a leading state master of the Maxim Gorky National Academic Drama Theatre, recently celebrated his 65th birthday, with many reasons to enjoy life[/b]As the years pass and we gain in wisdom, we tend to seek out a quiet life. However, we realise that Fate sends us trials and challenges to help us gain self-knowledge and to better appreciate the wonderful elements of our lives.
Ivan Matskevich, Honoured Artiste of Belarus and a leading state master of the Maxim Gorky National Academic Drama Theatre, recently celebrated his 65th birthday, with many reasons to enjoy life
As the years pass and we gain in wisdom, we tend to seek out a quiet life. However, we realise that Fate sends us trials and challenges to help us gain self-knowledge and to better appreciate the wonderful elements of our lives. It is a matter upon which we could forever ponder: the need for sadness in order to recognise true joy and happiness. Most of us simply shrug our shoulders and cope as best we can with whatever life throws at us. Some cannot help but continue seeking answers: among them prevail actors, writers and painters.
I believe the twists of Fate are sent to allow us to gain true appreciation for the value of living, making us treasure time spent on holiday, with relatives and friends. We gain better understanding and love for cultural works and, even, come to revere the simple pleasures — such as preparing a meal.
One weekend morning, I opened the window into the courtyard to see that spring’s tender green leaves, daffodils and violas were upon us. Breathing the aromas of new growth it was like a ‘small Easter’: a return to life after long illness or trauma… a resurrection. We tend to only feel this way after escaping extreme danger. Suddenly, the absence of pain is perceived as a generous and unexpected gift. We at once understand that our life trembled in the balance. Mr. Matskevich understand this feeling well…
People call him a prominent and charismatic actor with great talent and he is often recognised in the street. Fans come to thank him for his wonderful contribution to the theatre and cinema. His popularity inspires audiences to seek out any performance in which he is involved and the Internet is filled with positive reviews admiring his talent. Naturally, his fans always wish the best for him in every way, believing him to be a splendid actor. Some are adamant that only someone of his strength of spirit could play a particular character — such as in Panie Kochanku, where he plays the leading role of a Radziwill duke.
Mr. Matskevich boasts a wonderful repertoire of roles from his many years of work in the theatre — with the Brest Drama Theatre, the Theatre-Studio of Film Actors, and his native Russian Theatre. Among his multitude of accolades are those for his roles in M. Gorky’s Vassa, A. Ostrovsky’s Profitable Post, M. Bulgakov’s Run, A. Karelin’s I Believe in Horoscopes, G. Hauptmann’s Before Sunset and J. Goldman’s Lion in Winter. Moreover, he has an enviable screen career, having appeared in over 70 films, with famous Belarusian, Russian and Ukrainian film directors: Vyacheslav Nikiforov, Mikhail Ptashuk, Gennady Paloka, Alexey German, Samvel Gasparov and Timofey Levchuk.
However, few are aware that he has played Peter the Great and that his five year old granddaughter Frosya teaches him manners (because her grandfather-actor should be a true gentleman). Also, why does he advise his 19 year old grandson Timofey to read Jack London’s Martin Eden — his favourite novel from his younger days?
We might wonder what runs through his mind in these days surrounding his venerable birthday. What are his concerns and joys? Over a cup of karkadй tea, in his cosy drawing room, Ivan and his actress wife Lyudmila share their thoughts with us.
Lyudmila, is Ivan different at home to how he appears in the theatre?
Ivan is always professional, taking his responsibilities seriously. He does whatever he undertakes to do. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly and, when something is good, he can only be delighted. He truly ‘lives’ his stage roles. He’s also very opinionated — and is loud in sharing his thoughts on all matters. Sometimes, our neighbours must think that he is screaming at me, when he might just be commenting on the cold while standing on the balcony. I can always hear his Shakespearean intonation (he played Claudius in ‘Hamlet’) — even at home. I can’t stress enough how professional he is. Also, he lives life to the full. Last year, he was awarded the title of Honoured Artiste and I said, on that occasion, that he is a ‘true’ person.
Lyudmila and Ivan have lived together for almost 45 years. Lyudmila is already a pensioner. According to Mr. Matskevich, his wife, children and grandchildren are his spiritual foundation and inspiration — especially his grandchildren.

Mr. Matskevich, how did you come to enter the Theatre and Art Institute? Was this your vocation, a childish dream or luck?

I wanted to become a sailor, applying to Liepaja after finishing nine years of school. However, I fell ill just before departing, so went to evening school instead, and began working at a construction materials factory in Baranovichi. One young boy there wished to become an actor and advised me to join him in applying for the Theatre Institute in Minsk. At the time, I had no idea about theatrical art but, of course, I enjoyed watching actors such as Urbansky in ‘Clear Sky’ and ‘Communist’. We both copied his style and even had our hair cut ‘a-la Urbansky’. I agreed to apply, learning a poem and a fable by heart for performance. We both came to Minsk in 1964.
So you never became a sailor?
I didn’t but I was in a sailor’s shoes 18 years ago. People say that being an actor allows you to ‘try on’ other professions. I sailed 14,000 miles on a yacht from Sevastopol to Bizerte in North Africa’s Tunisia, on a trip organised by the Sevastopol Naval Assembly, to mark the 300th anniversary of the Russian fleet. If you remember from history, after the October Revolution, Kolchak took his Black Sea squadron there; it was dissolved in Bizerte and Andreevsky flag was lowered. We went by yacht to hoist the flag on the day when it was lowered.
Being in Minsk, how did you hear of the trip?
Quite by chance, the organisers of the voyage needed a professional actor to play Peter I, delivering speeches in his name during the yacht’s departure, on arrival in Tunisia and on hoisting Andreevsky flag. A friend from Minsk happened to be in Sevastopol and heard of the trip. He passed on my name and I agreed readily, of course.
Tell us, please, about your impressions of the journey.
When we set off from Sevastopol, some laughed, telling us not to climb aboard this ‘washtub’ as we’d never manage the trip. However, we reached Bizerte and hoisted Andreevsky flag there. We sailed through five seas and survived a terrible storm…
Were you frightened?
Of course! We didn’t have a modern navigation system, electric lighting or any way of communicating with civilisation. When we set off, we left behind all normality. We survived a storm in open sea; I’ve written somewhere which sea it was. The waves were as high as a three storey building. When the yacht was thrown down, you felt as if you were flying into an abyss. Then it would rise again before falling sickeningly once more. We could only lie on the floor of the cabin, bidding farewell to life while feeling pity for those who were on watch. It may seem strange but we still managed to sleep. The storm lasted all night and, in the morning, climbing on deck, I saw such beauty as never before or since: a huge rainbow spread above the sea, which was dead calm, with a mirror-like surface…
The yacht was strong enough, wasn’t it?
Yes, it was made in Germany, with a metal hull. If it were made from timber, it would have been ripped apart. Moreover, we pursued a noble goal; as they say, we were sailing under the guidance of God. The engine took a pounding; its metal cylinder pistons bent during the storm, requiring repair in the Bosporus. I remember the crew heating the metal on a stove, hammering the cylinder pistons straight. The engine then began to work again and we moved on.
We arrived at the Island of Paros — a Greek port where the English, French and Russians once defeated the Turkish. The Russian ‘Matros Zheleznyak’ vessel is still moored there and we were invited to take a tour, being cordially welcomed. The Russian Ambassador to Greece was there and the military attachй, who was born in Vitebsk. When he saw our yacht, he was very surprised that we’d managed to sail through five seas. We still had to sail from Paros to Tunisia and he really wondered whether we planned to sail home on it.
Did you really do this?
What else could we do? We didn’t have another yacht.
I suppose you didn’t regret after the voyage that you’d become an actor rather than a sailor?
Certainly not. I was extremely glad to return alive (laughing)… At the time, I was pondering the meaning of life — although not as deeply as recently…
You must be keen on adventures, having chosen such a trip?
Yes, I enjoy the feeling of anxiety. As an actor, you’re often connected with extreme circumstances.
Our way home was also fraught with danger as we ran out of food and were caught by fog in the Bosporus. We had just one 60Wt lamp and the yacht was sailing almost blind. We nearly hit a big vessel, so we had to come closer to the shore and spend the night by some rocks. Then, Sevastopol refused to accept us, as the Russian and Ukrainian border guards were having a disagreement. We arrived at 9p.m. hungry and exhausted and only crossed the border at 12p.m. the next day. Feeling very happy, I left for Minsk.

Let’s return to your time at the institute. How long did it take for you to realise that you’d made the correct choice?

I didn’t feel anything of the kind; I was just enjoying life, as you do when you’re young. Only after we were appointed, with fellow student Mila, to the Brest Drama Theatre, did I begin to comprehend something of my chosen profession. Of course, the institute gave me some idea but Brest brought the moment of truth. At the time, it was an extremely powerful troupe and Mila and I immediately mixed in. It was impossible not to understand the nature of theatre. We were very glad since, at the time, the theatre was considered to be one of the best in Belarus. It went to the Kremlin in Moscow and won the Lenin Komsomol Prize in 1967 for ‘Brest Fortress’.
Did you have to prove yourself as a talented actor? Or was your ‘entrance’ into the theatrical company quite smooth?
Everything happened very quickly, with roles ‘raining down’ on me one after another — interesting and complex: in ‘The Petty Bourgeois’, ‘Barbers,’ ‘Intrigue and Love,’ ‘Brest Fortress’ and ‘Shadow of the Moon’. I played with Lyudmila in many performances.
How is she as an acting partner?
I can’t complain — the same as in real life. Lyuda is my faithful friend and my beloved. Moreover, she is a good actress.
Have you managed to gain the roles you dreamt of or have you thrown yourself upon Fate?
I’m quite relaxed about it all. It may seem strange but I view acting as a hobby. I don’t treat it very seriously. For me, acting is like playing a game. I’ve never sought out roles, always playing what I’m given.
Was it the same at the Theatre-Studio of Film Actors?
There and in the Russian Theatre.
One stage director — perhaps Mark Zakharov — told Oleg Yankovsky that actors belong to everyone and no one. Do you agree?
Absolutely. An actor should never belong to anyone in particular; he acts for himself. This is the profession.
Do you think that some actors are too ambitious… or vain and egotistical? How do you endure this in yourself and in your colleagues?
It’s impossible to be an actor without these qualities: egoism and ambition are normal. I love and respect actors and understand these aspects. In fact, I very much admire the acting community, as actors reveal their souls to give everything to an audience — often at the cost of their health. At these moments, they are beautiful. If an actor is nervous for some reason — maybe a role goes wrong or they think themselves perfect but the stage director isn’t satisfied — I think it’s best to let them choose their own path. Allow them to play their coveted roles, and let them think they’re the best. It’s their right and it’s normal for them to feel that way .Actors are people — not angels.
Truly, I know I’m not a ‘hot shot’ and I’ve never ‘chased’ roles; I’ll play whatever role I’m given. If a role is not mine then it’s not meant for me. I find plotting to gain a role very distasteful and I’d never speak badly of someone or hate them for having ‘my’ role.
Those are wise words. Did you learn this ethos from your parents or grandparents?
My parents and grandparents were wonderful. I was surrounded by the care of my family, being well-loved as a child. Grandfather Zalevsky (on my mother’s side) was extremely tall; they say I resemble him. My grandmother Yulia was tiny (Lyudmila called her Fairy). She liked to tell Mila that I was so small on being born, that they put a sheepskin muffler on my legs to keep me warm. Mila finds this highly amusing, ever increasing the size of the muffler and diminishing me to the size of a ‘little Thumbling’. She smiles on thinking of me sleeping inside the muffler.
In 1954, my parents went to the wilderness of Kostanay, taking me with them. My father helped construct roads there. We lived in Kazakhstan until 1961, so I grew up on the River Tobol. When we returned to Baranovichi, my father built a house where I was also very happy.
Are there actors whose creativity has inspired you and continues to inspire you now? Did you yearn to be like them in your acting youth and did you ever meet any of your idols?
I adored Victor Tarasov not only as a great actor but as a wonderful teacher. He taught our course. I also admire Sasha Denisov, who studied with us. All the girls were in love with Tarasov and would often forget their lines and become confused while acting, as they were so doe-eyed over him. Only Lyudmila was immune; as she says herself, at that time, she was already falling in love with me.
So you saved her from having a crush on Tarasov?
Did you notice Lyudmila immediately? Was it love at first sight?
Yes, it was love at first sight on both sides. Mila came to our institute from Tashkent Theatre Institute. Her father was in the military so, naturally, she had plenty of attention from young military cadets. However, her father advised her against marrying a military man, suggesting an actor or a stage director. He also wanted her to marry someone with a true Russian name — such as Ivan. In Uzbekistan, where they lived, the men were all called Ibragim or Sukhrad.
When Mila heard that my name was Ivan, she immediately paid attention to me. Interestingly, even before our meeting, I dreamt of shooting a swan. When I told my mother, she became very worried and began to cry, as she understood that I’d soon meet my true love. On September 1st, when our studies began, I remember rushing into the classroom and hearing my name called. That was when Lyudmila began to pay attention to me and I noticed her. We acted in ‘Fifth Column’, often rehearsing in the evenings; rehearsals finished at 1a.m. or 2a.m. By the third year, we were married.
In taking on a role, do you draw on real life to bring realistic details to your character?
Of course! I can’t do otherwise. I’ll tell you an interesting story. In Brest, I’d been long playing brave, heroic personalities. Calderуn’s ‘La Dama Duende’ (The Phantom Lady) was added to the repertoire and I expected to be again given the role of the leading juvenile. However, the play has a wonderful comedic bonehead role. I was telling Lyudmila how I’d really like to play this role, so I could fool about. The next day, I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw that I’d been given my desired role. I ‘copied’ our daughter Alenka, who was three at the time and couldn’t express her love or feelings in words. She used gestures: casting down or raising her eyes, turning away from me and making funny movements with her head and hands… I made the same movements on stage, including her facial gestures. It was well-received by the audience.
In your opinion, which qualities make an actor extraordinary?
You should be fair and unafraid. You should feel how a character would appear in real life. It’s important that the audience understands what you’re doing and whom you’re playing. Of course, it also helps to have been ‘kissed by God’, as people say.
Which plays do you most enjoy?
I’m keen on those from which you learn something, which make you later ponder. You can fill the role with your own understanding and perceptions, enabling you to speak to the audience. I can’t endure ‘empty’ plays.

Are you satisfied with your role in Pane Kochanku?

The play is good and I enjoy acting in it greatly.
Do you like to read your reviews?
Of course, and I like it when people recognise me in the street and when they write well about me. All this is very pleasant. If people don’t recognise you, then what are you acting for?
You’ve shot so many films and continue to do so. Which film do you most recollect and which do you like to watch again and again and why?
Once, I was reading about the Commander of the Western Military District, General Pavlov. Of course, I never thought that I’d be lucky enough to play him, with his tragic fate. When I was invited for film tests, in Kiev, I was extremely excited. I simply felt that I would receive the role, which is what happened. However, only the moment of Pavlov’s arrest and interrogation appeared in the script of Ivan Stadnyuk’s ‘War’ epic.
I knew more about him and advised director Timofey Levchuk to trace the life of the General until his execution by firing squad;Levchuk agreed, so we shot the scenes. I was very pleased to have been able to give this input. In some issues, I consulted Lyudmila’s father, as he served in the military as a Lieutenant Colonel. Meanwhile, her grandfather was a military General Major of Justice. The shootings took place in Ukraine and Moscow, at the General Staff building. The film was released in 1990.
Every film is remarkable in its own way. Mostly, this is because you meet talented directors and, of course, wonderful actors — such as Yevgeny Samoilov. Such meetings enrich us. I well remember my first screen role, as the lead, in Nikiforov’s ‘Bread Smells Like Gunpowder’. I can say that I’ve truly enjoyed my life
Which year has been most ‘starry’ for you?
I can’t answer categorically, as every year is remarkable. My ‘Brest period’ was full of roles and challenges. At that time, I also began to film for the cinema. From 1981-1986, I was working a great deal opposite strong actors with the Theatre-Studio of Film Actors. Interestingly, I played Fiodor in the ‘Communist’ while Yevgeny Urbansky played Vasily Gubanov. Gostyukhin has played the role of Vasily.
Then you joined the Russian Theatre?
This has been a no less happy period and certainly ‘starry’. I’ve become a leading stage master, receiving my honourable title and playing many roles. Fortunately, I continue to appear on its stage.
Have you ever pondered the value of your life?
On January 18th, 2012, when I had my heart operation, I couldn’t help but ponder life. The next day, every cell in my body felt alive. I understood how our life trembles in the balance and gained the deepest understanding of life’s preciousness.
Had you experienced heart complaints before?
No, although when they examined my heart, it turned out that I’d had a heart attack. I didn’t even know this had occurred, so it must have been quite painless.
Did Lyudmila take care of you?
I was saved by cardio-surgeon Vyacheslav Yanushko, while Mila took care of me. She is my wife and I’m very grateful to her for her patience, courage, frankness and wisdom and, of course, love.
Do you often chat with your grandchildren?
Always, when I have free time... The oldest, Timofey, has a very busy, modern life, so I don’t expect to occupy a dominating position with him. However, I hope he reads the favourite novel from my own youth — Martin Eden’s ‘Jack London’. When I lived in Baranovichi, the book taught me a lot about myself. I attended sambo and skiing lessons and read books.
My grand-daughter Frosinka is quite a different story. She is a miracle and has plenty of time for me. Once, she told me: ‘Grandfather, you are a true children’s friend’. When I bought her a musical box, she didn’t even know how to thank me. She even invited me to dance, wanting me to be her partner’. Afterwards, I asked her whether I was a good dancer and she responded: ‘You dance well but don’t know how to show good manners with ladies’. It turned out that I should have shown her — the lady — to her seat and thanked her for the dance. So, my grand-daughter has taught me a lesson in etiquette. Yes, it’s never too late to learn how to dance as a gentleman. You just need the desire to learn.

By Valentina Zhdanovich
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