Author: Valentina REZNIKOVA
She has been working in theatre for 55 years! She entered this House as a first-year student to remain here since. Today she has little in common with that leggy beauty of a slender frame but deep inside she’s the same and only girl – affable, reliable, and brisk. People's Artist of Azerbaijan Yevgenia Stepanovna Nevmerzhitskaya.
She used to have a rippling laughter but the passing years have not been kind to her, casting some faint sadness to her appearance. Only her closest circle knows real reasons behind persistent sorrow in her eyes. She was less fortunate in life when the only remaining members of her once large family were her grandson currently living in Moscow, and husband, who works at the Russian Drama Theatre. It is believed that such marriages live short because one of the spouses cannot come to terms with the success and popularity of the other. Harmonious, lyrical, and romantic relations make the Nevmerzhitskaya-Mirzahasanov pair completely different. It is this complementarity of actions that wipes out any professional priorities and jealousy between Yevgenia Stepanovna and Safa Gameddinovich. In fact, their longstanding collaboration on stage enriches their life making it more interesting and vivid. Looking at her smiling face and sad eyes, I asked if the actress with fifty-five years on stage considered herself an omnipotent master or behind-the-scenes authority. She smiled and answered: “No, I’m still a student...”
“Even after portraying almost a hundred different female characters?”
“Exactly! Creating a character of a living person is similar to learning how to walk. Each new role makes me feel like a student.”
“Which favourite subjects did you have in school and in college?”
“In school, my favourite subjects were literature and history. In college, I liked the classes on acting and dancing.”
Just like the old days, she loves reading a lot. She closely monitors the emergence of new fiction writers and is a regular subscriber of the literary magazine ЛитературныйАзербайджан.
“Recently, I was deeply impressed by the memoirs of Hidayat Orujov about his childhood and school years, as well as Joan Rowling’s crime novel The Cuckoo's Calling.”
But no matter what she reads and which author she finds impressive, she always returns to her favourite book, The Little Prince of Saint-Exupéry. Just like fifty years ago…
"I do not know why but it is the young prince who has been dominating over me throughout my life. When I have heavy thoughts, I read Saint-Exupéry. He knows how to calm and cheer. I'm comfortable with him. We have never stopped our dialogue during these years. I wish I could put this story on stage some time.”
“Do you want to do directing?”
“Not at all. I just want to stage The Little Prince. Only this story. Because I have something to say to the children together with the author. A dialogue between the young prince and our little spectators is as relevant today as ever. We must preserve moral ideals for our children. This is the best we can do for them today.”
Yevgenia Stepanovna represents a generation of the sixties. That is why she always believes that it is possible to change the life for the better. She also believes that nothing is impossible in this life. It is important to believe in your dream, in yourself and in your friends. Today she has not many friends as before while her notebook has thinned over the years. But her relationships with those who are still around her are tested by time. Nevmerzhitskaya does not let everyone into the inner circle of her relationships, which includes not only her colleagues, but also people of other professions.
“What are your selection criteria for the inner circle?”
“I do not like greedy and stupid people.”
She is not fudging! As a generous, hospitable, and humble (an extremely strange virtue for artists of all sorts!) person, Nevmerzhitskaya lives the way she had been taught by her parents and the Soviet school. Therefore, slogans such as ‘one man is a friend, comrade, and brother to another’ or ‘one for all, all for one’ are not merely slogans but her life principles. She has become a bright and talented actress of the theatre as soon as she was enrolled. Her first role as eighteen-year-old Alpha in Theresa's Birthday immediately created her reputation as a promising, interesting actress and an extraordinary person. Timid comparing her skills with the reputation of venerable actors such as Falckovich, Ginsburg, Shirye, Yudin, Adushev, Antropova, Babicheva, she promised herself to reach their level in future. Her idols were still relatively young, energetic and set the enlightening tone in the theatre. Perhaps, this explains her willingness to read constantly and improve professionally, visiting exhibitions and cinemas, and then to discuss and analyse what she read and watched. ‘Veterans’ would watch those who did not follow this trend with ironic leniency. This was worse than any reprimand expressed aloud; for one would have to correspond to intellectual and professional bar set by the ‘veterans’ of the theatre and raised higher every other day. And this concerned not only professional skills, but also relations behind the scenes. Nevmerzhitskaya has many specific examples but remembers one of them.
“It happened when I was playing Verochka from [Maxim] Gorky’s The Last Ones. Our make-up artist was late, and, of course, I was nervous. When she finally came, I yelled at her because I could be late for my call, which was unacceptable! It so happened that Pyotr Borisovich Yudin heard everything passing by my make-up room. But he did not say anything to me on that day. After two weeks or so, he came to the rehearsal and approached me in the make-up room. I must admit that people were extremely gallant in those days; for he tipped his hat and greeted me saying: ‘How do you do, Ms. Nevmerzhitskaya?’ And then reminded me very gently of the case with the make-up artist: ‘Remember, young lady, you are an actress! Therefore, you cannot and should not raise your voice at anyone who is several steps below you on career wise. By respecting other’s dignity, you preserve your own!’ It was a lesson learnt for the rest of my life. Then I used to be a regular guest at his home on various occasions, to celebrate the New Year, for example. I have seen how he was at home, how he cooked amazing dishes such as Masaduan. I do not know why he called it that way, but it was a dish made of various jelly. Or the fish roasted with potatoes and mushrooms and served with special sauce...”
“What about vodka, a tribute to the old Soviet tradition?”
She laughed and suddenly fell silent for a moment, as if recollecting her memories, where access to outsiders is prohibited. Then, sweeping the images of the past under her subconscious, she said:
“Of course, there was vodka, champagne, and all kinds of snacks. Pyotr Borisovich also taught me how to drink vodka properly: you need to take a sip and then immediately put a piece of an ice cream on your tongue before swallowing the liquid. He was a gourmet too! People of his generation did not fuss about nothing. They used to live in a measured and tasteful manner, knowing how to enjoy small things. It seems to me that they had a life way more significant and solid than ours.”
“Do not you think that you idealise the past?”
“I do not think so. I just feel sad for those people.”
“If you had a chance to travel back in time, what would be the century you would like to live in?”
“I feel quite alright in this one. I was born and gained both my personal and professional identities in my country. I love this country because I was born here. Here I spent my early childhood and was fabulously happy with my family. I love the people, among whom I grew up and continue to live. My small homeland is the village of Altiaghach in the Khizi District. It is sort of a small Switzerland for me! Thanks to its beauty and uniqueness, Altiaghach in no way lags behind the most popular world-class resorts because it is not an artificially created beauty, as in glamorous resorts, but it is a real product of the nature. A place created by the Almighty, if you will!
“Do you have your favourite places in Baku?”
“Of course, I do! Our city is changing. We have many cosy squares, parks, and public gardens. My husband and I like drinking tea in a cosy square near the theatre and walking along the Boulevard.”
“Yet which period of time in your past would you like to travel to for a while?”
"My childhood! When the people I knew were alive, and I was happy! I would like to see my parents, to wake up on holiday mornings to find a new dress hanging on the back of a chair with a pair of brand new shoes under it...”
“Is it nostalgia for the past or for the present?”
“For childish sensations! Miracles always happen in childhood, when you wait for them, of course. One does not need any ‘special circumstances’ for a miracle to happen. Miracles are possible while we remain children.”
“Then let’s continue playing this game under ‘special circumstances’. Imagine that you are an owner of a theatre. How would it look like?”
“It certainly would be a living one! I say this as a representative of an emotional experience theatre. Only a living theatre can make theatrical art attractive to spectators. But this is an absolutely subjective view.”
“Do you think that theatres should entirely depend on public funding?”
“I think so. Theatre is a form of art. It cannot and should not be a commercial entity. Dramatic art does not produce material values for sale. It produces something intangible physically. Rather, it is something that you can feel in your heart and understand with your mind. Nevertheless, this non-material value is more important than any material one. Because thanks to various tours and festivals, we promote the Azerbaijani culture as artists and as the messengers of cultural and friendly intentions. Art should not and cannot be commercialised. Otherwise, it ceases to be an art and becomes a mass culture. Same as in fashion industry, haute couture is a high-end fashion for the elite, while the ready-to-wear is for the masses. But to have an access to haute couture models, one should have a bank account. In other words, this style is available to a select few. On the contrary, theatre is an art for all who want to feel alive and can feel love, pain, offense, joy, disappointment... Our national leader Heydar Aliyev was very good at describing this. By the way, he would never miss a single premiere in our theatre and could brilliantly analyse any performance. He believed that the Russian Drama Theatre was an integral part of our theatrical culture. Our president, Mr. Ilham Aliyev, follows the same path. We still remember his visit to our theatre and his speech on the opening day of the theatre after major repairs. This was on May 26, 2008. He said: ‘Russian drama was, is and will be.’ I am very grateful to him for these words! Seizing this opportunity, I want to express my gratitude to him for honouring me with the title of the People's Artist, which I was awarded in May.”
“What is the main thing in your profession?”
“Not to lie!”
“What role would you like to play today: lyric, characteristic or dramatic?”
“I have become wiser and today I analyse the situation a bit differently. Frankly speaking, I do not really care about the genre of my role be it of a leading or supporting character. I think professionally, I have reached a stage when the quality of my performance is more important than the quantity of scripts. The same is true for acting as well.”
"What are you dreaming about?"
“My only relatives in this world are my grandson and my husband. I wish my husband could always be by my side while I am alive. He is my friend, brother, father, husband, and colleague.”
“They say that women are absolutely selfish and always wish something unreal. What is your personal wish to yourself as the People's Artist of Azerbaijan?”
“My classmate and friend Roma Izrailov who is known mainly for his cameo appearance in The Diamond Arm but unfortunately died in a car accident in Moscow…”
“Wait, which episode of the film do you mean?”
“There is a scene shot in the legendary Nargiz Cafe. Roma is one of the sailors sitting at the table when [Yuri] Nikulin is singing his popular song [about rabbits]. Roma would often play with my last name calling me ‘ne v meru jitskaya’ (‘overly cheerful’ in Russian, R+) explaining this with my incredible cheerfulness. I think we all love life. Especially when we care about our nearest and dearest, those who we do not want to lose. The only thing I wish is that all my friends and relatives are safe and healthy! I want them to live as long as possible. I do not want to lose anyone else! Long live my general director Adalet Hajiyev, who is taking the utmost care about our actors and is always respectful to me. Long live my director Alexander Sharovsky, who prolongs my human and professional life giving me a chance to live on stage. I wish all the best to my president. I wish him enough strength to protect our land and us. I wish all my colleagues health and happiness. I wish that none of them lost their loved ones. I wish our young talented and versatile actors happiness and success. Let them never be disappointed in their choice of profession. I wish my theatre prosperity and long life. I wish…”
“Excuse my but do you wish all this to yourself only?”
“Yes. This is exactly how my selfishness looks like. I wish all this only to myself. And it seems my wishes are real.”
“It is a shame that there is no Wailing Wall in your theatre where you could place all of your wishes. One slip of paper every day. I think you still have a long list of names...”
“Well, it’s not that big. I also wish peace, health, prosperity, and happiness to the entire editorial board of your magazine and their relatives. Happiness is when everybody’s safe and sound...”