Vera Graziadei

Vera Graziadei on performing Dostoevsky’s Nameless Nobody

To celebrate the birthday of Fyodor Dostoevsky, I speak to film and television actress Vera Graziadei about her acclaimed one-woman performance of one of his most overlooked works

What first attracted you to Dostoevsky’s work?

Promotional image for Alexander Markov's production of Nameless Nobody, starring Vera Graziadei
Promotional image for Alexander Markov’s production of Nameless Nobody, starring Vera Graziadei

Nietzsche once said that Dostoevsky was “the only person who has ever taught me anything about psychology.” I became obsessed with Dostoevsky’s work during my early twenties when I read The Idiot, a masterpiece which became for me not only a source of psychological insight, but also of philosophical thought and spirituality – my other passions, aside from theatre and literature. He is one of those rare writers whose influence extends far beyond his immediate discipline.

It was fascinating for me as a student of Empiricist philosophy, who was dissatisfied with the rational positivist approach taught to me at LSE [London School of Economics and Political Science], to dwell on the “Shakespeare of the lunatic asylum”, and have a chance to explore the darker and more irrational sides of human nature. It was a revelation to realise that Dostoevsky’s philosophical thought is at the root of Existentialism, a branch of philosophy that resonates with me very strongly. And to find out that most existentialist thinkers, including Sarte and Camus, have at some stage addressed the issues raised by Fyodor Mihailovich.

Fyodor Dostoevsky
Fyodor Dostoevsky

As I embarked on reading Dostoevsky’s major work – the short stories and long novels (still have a few to go), it occurred to me that most of my favourite Modernist writers were at some stage engaged in a dialogue with Dostoevsky, and were either following in his footsteps or trying to present their own vision of the themes he raised. André Gide, who was also a fan, dedicated himself to investigating the mercurial side of humankind. Virginia Woolf explores the mystical terrains of the psyche with her stream-of-consciousness prose, just as James Joyce did. T.S. Eliot was totally engrossed in Dostoevsky and some of his best poems are also metaphysical, psychologically-complex and polyphonic – just think of The Waste Land.

My absolute favourite, Herman Hesse, treated Dostoevsky as a visionary, even if he was wary of Dostoevsky’s readiness to dive into internal chaos; he also believed that the spiritual vacuum of the western materialist world can be re-filled through turning towards ‘the spiritual East’, as well as exploring the unconscious forces of the soul. Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka and many other great minds who have at some stage and to varying degrees shaped my inner being – they all held Dostoevsky as a key influence on their lives and work.

There was no way that I could have avoided an encounter with Dostoevsky’s work. Even if I didn’t read him directly I would at some stage read about him in the works of others and would eventually arrive to where I am now – considering him as one of the ‘patron saints’ of my spiritual-emotional-intellectual world.

What inspired you to put Dostoevsky’s work up on stage?

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

The first time I ever performed at the Edinburgh Fringe, while still a drama student at LAMDA [London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art], I came across an actor on the Royal Mile who was handing out flyers, advertising his one man performance of Notes from the Underground. Unfortunately, the times clashed with our performance times, so I never saw it, but I thought it was an absolutely genius idea and ever since then I harboured a dream of doing one such performance myself.

A year later I met Alexander Markov during one of his theatre workshops in St.Petersburg – he instantly reminded me of Dostoevsky with his piercing blue eyes and long grey beard. After several long conversations I learnt that we shared the love for the Russian author and I discovered that Alexander not only had a deep understanding of his work, he had also staged Brothers Karamazov in Paris and had failed several times to put on Nameless Nobody in St.Petersburg. As it sometimes happens, it became a necessity that Alexander and I do something together – and it was a natural choice for us that it should be something from Dostoevsky.

How would you describe Nameless Nobody (Netochka Nezvanova) to a newcomer?

The first time I read Nameless Nobody, following Alexander’s suggestion, I misunderstood it as a misery tale recounted by a victim – a common misunderstanding with some of Dostoevsky’s work. As we started going deeper into the text during the rehearsal, it revealed itself to me as a story filled with the Light of Unconditional Love, which the narrator (the only female one in the whole of Dostoevsky’s oeuvre) holds for her stepfather – a failed musician and a failing human being.

dostoevsky-mock-execution
The mock execution of the Petrashevtsky circle, which included Dostoevsky

When Dostoevsky started writing Nameless Nobody, he announced to one of his friends in his letters that he just began writing a novel, which will be “a masterpiece and longer than War and Peace“. Unfortunately, he never got to finish it – his writing was interrupted by his arrest, a mock execution followed by a pardon, and his subsequent exile to Siberia. These events inevitably changed Fyodor Mihailovich, so when he returned home and then to writing he had to start afresh. Nameless Nobody is one of his earlier little-known masterpieces, where Dostoevsky began to explore one of his major themes – the redemptive power of Unconditional Love.

How did you come to meet the director, the late Alexander Markov? What was he like to work with?

I was at a dinner party in Berlin, sitting next to a very good English actress and director, who after something I said to her, gave me Alexander’s telephone number, recommending that I attend one of his workshops. Later she admitted that because of the uniqueness and power of his approach, she didn’t like sharing this contact with others. I still feel incredibly grateful to her that she made an exception and put me in touch with this extraordinary man.

Alexander Markov was not only a director and an accomplished theatre actor, he was also a philosopher and a deeply-spiritual person. I can’t even call what we did ‘work,’ as it implies a separation between what one is and what one is doing, while our creative process was wholly immersive and involved, at least from my point of view, an engagement of my entire being, as well as a slow spiritual-psychological transformation. Perhaps this change was an inevitability when allowing Dostoevsky’s text to flow through you for several hours a day, but I am convinced that Alexander’s directing approach has facilitated a closer merger with ‘the spirit’ of Dostoevsky.

79c6c-fyodor_mikahailovich_dostoyevsky2527s_study_in_st_petersburg
Dostoevsky’s writing room in St. Petersburg

Markov was very faithful to the text: he prioritised meaning of the words above ‘characterisation’, he never added his own superfluous affectations to the performance, and tried to keep as close to what he understood as the original intention of the author as possible. Most importantly, he approached the text as a musical score and the human body as an instrument: his partner and voice director Valentina Beletskaya was phenomenal at making sure that the voice and the body were able to carry and sustain the wide range that Alexander expected from an actor.

I was freshly out from drama school when I performed it and I was astounded when the critics at the Edinburgh Fringe gave the performance five stars and described it as ‘an acting masterclass’. It is all thanks to the talent of Alexander and Valentina, who were able, within a very short period of time, to get me to such a high level. When the director of Dostoevsky’s museum in St.Petersburg told us after the performance that we stayed faithful to the author, it was an honour and relief that we had, as much as we could, done justice to the work.

st-petersburg-dostoevskys-leningrad-by-inge-morath-1967

Dostoevsky’s novel is short, but it’s packed with colourful characters and evocative locations. How did it come to be produced as a one-woman play? And how did it end up on screen?

Nameless Nobody could seem like quite a complex text to pull off on one’s own for the reasons you have mentioned. On the other hand, because it is written in the first person and narrated as a memory, it is natural to imagine it as a one woman performance rather than an ensemble piece. Ultimately, it was Alexander’s idea to have the play directed like this. And given that he first conceived it some time in the seventies, he had quite a few years to carry it within himself before its birth, as well as to develop his directorial skills to ensure the successful manifestation of his vision. And doesn’t the whole magic of theatre stem from that simple event of one being standing alone on a bare stage? And then drawing other beings into an unknown world? Convincing them to follow her on the journey through ‘evocative locations’ where they can meet ‘colourful characters’? It is pure theatre at its most essential.

“And doesn’t the whole magic of theatre stem from that simple event of one being standing alone on a bare stage? And then drawing other beings into an unknown world? […] It is pure theatre at its most essential.”

Were there any challenges in bringing the novel to the stage?

The main challenge for me was to remember one hour of Dostoevsky’s text and then having enough strength and skill to do what the director wanted me to do, but these are minor aspects. If I was to attempt to direct this work myself, I would find it much more difficult. Alexander never seemed ‘challenged’ and always had a very deep understanding of the text and a clear idea of what to do with it. Unfortunately, I do not know exactly what was happening within Alexander when he was directing. He didn’t like giving interviews, as he was against speaking about one’s own artistic work. He always told me that work should speak for an artist, rather than an artist attempting to speak for his work. I can relate to it in other areas like writing poetry – which I love doing, but do not like discussing. But, curiously, I’m quite happy to share challenges of acting, especially if the text was written and directed by someone else.

What makes a solo performance different from a collaborative or ensemble piece?

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Netochka Nezvanova (Nameless Nobody)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Netochka Nezvanova (Nameless Nobody)

Aside from being more physically demanding, solo performances intensify the relationship between the performer and the audience. Especially when acting such a psychologically and spiritually complex material. At times the energy became so heightened, being on stage felt like a communion or a spiritual ritual. You are also more vulnerable, but the audience knows it and usually people support you with their attention. On the other hand, if you happen to have a “difficult” member of the audience, who coughs, scratches and makes his presence known through movement and sound, it can be quite distracting when you are alone. But, over time, I’ve learnt how to deal with these characters, too. Overall, as I’ve performed this piece nearly a hundred times, I felt much more experienced at solo acting by the time we filmed Nameless Nobody back in 2013. In fact, I would go as far as saying that it became a profoundly different piece from what it was when I first performed it in 2006 – fresh out of LAMDA.

“Aside from being more physically demanding, solo performances intensify the relationship between the performer and the audience. Especially when acting such a psychologically and spiritually complex material.”

How did the screen version of Nameless Nobody came about?

The filming of Nameless Nobody was quite a powerful and fateful event in my life. I had already committed to another theatre project (in the lead roles of Jekyll and Hyde), when a producer friend called with an offer to film the play in Dovzhenko studios in Kiev, and then show it on some Ukrainian and Russian channels. I had suggested it to him a few years before, but it was not until 2013 that this opportunity materialised and we had to do it all very quickly – within a month. It was an agony having to give up on another dream role, but not a decision I will ever regret, because this filming ended up being Alexander Markov’s Swan Song.

“[Alexander’s] last words to me were very poignant: ‘Theatre demands our presence, but film doesn’t. Now Netochka has a life of its own and our presence is not needed anymore.’ He died of a heart attack a few minutes after our conversation.”

Alexander departed from this life immediately after finishing the first edit of the film. I had just spoken to him on Skype from London and he told me that he was very happy with the performance and how it was filmed. His last words to me were very poignant: “Theatre demands our presence, but film doesn’t. Now Netochka has a life of its own and our presence is not needed anymore.” He died of a heart attack a few minutes after our conversation. I had to finish editing the project on my own, while mourning, but I hope that despite being in a cloud, the editor and I managed to achieve something that Alexander would have been proud of.

What’s next for you?

vera-graziadei
Vera Graziadei

It was quite a coincidence that you have asked me to give this interview now, when I have just re-activated my production company Luminous Arts, which has been dormant for a few years. Going back to where I started with Dostoevsky, I will focus on producing and acting in intellectually, emotionally and spiritually stimulating projects that “touch spirit, mind and heart.”

Next in the pipeline is a stage adaptation of letters between Rilke, Pasternak and Tsvetaeva. The passionate platonic love exchanges between these giants of poetry takes place amidst the divided Europe of the mid-1920s, with Pasternak writing from a politically-isolated Soviet Union, Rilke dying in the mountains of Switzerland, and Tsvetaeva moving between Czech Republic, France, and England. This romance-at-a-distance will touch on the connection between love and creativity, explore the poets’ relationship to their embodied selves, and aim to raise questions about the role of an artist/poet in a politically-turbulent world.

The play, which will happen some time in 2017, will be directed by Gerald Garutti (Notes from the Underground, Richard III, Haim) and co-produced by Oliver King (Queens of Syria, Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya, Donkey Heart). I really hope you will be able to come and see it, Rhys!

Netochka Nezvanova – Nameless Nobody is available to purchase on DVD from Amazon. You can watch the trailer on Youtube.


About the Actor

Vera Graziadei is mainly known for being a comedy actress, most notably in the British cult sitcom Peep Show, where she played a girlfriend of the main character Jeremy (portrayed by Robert Webb). Aside from her work with David Mitchell and Robert Webb, she also starred in feature films alongside James Corden and Mathew Horne, as well as Steve Coogan in The Look of Love. In TV drama she’s worked with David Suchet in Poirot, Minnie Driver in The Deep and Robert Sheehan in Me and Mrs Jones. Her stage work includes Nameless Nobody by Dostoevsky and Top Girls by Caryl Churchill, which was performed at the Royal Court.

Before going into acting, Vera achieved a Bsc and Masters in Philosophy. She’s an author of the blog veragraziadei.com and Founder and Director of the production company Luminous Arts. To keep in touch follow her on Twitter or to read her poems go to Instagram.


Credits

The masthead photograph of Vera Graziadei was taken by Faye Thomas. The headshot of Vera Graziadei was taken by Aliona Adrianova.

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  1. Looks really interesting!

  2. Pingback: Weekly Round-Up (14 Nov 2016) – RhysTranter.com

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