Oleg Tabakov, the Olivier of Russia, was nine when Stalingrad fell and the Russians sent small groups of defeated German soldiers across the country to show the exhausted Russian people that Aryan Supermen didn't exist. He tells the story with no show of emotion, the same way he acts, allowing the truth to breathe. "I lived with my grandmother by the frozen Volga river. Huddled men in the remains of enemy uniforms were exhibits in a bizarre zoo, objects of contempt and humiliation. My grandmother saw them and, without a word, she cut our loaf of black bread into small squares and said, 'Take it to them, they're starving.'
"Her husband and her son had been sacrificed to Hitler's war but these were other women's sons and husbands. I took the bread to them. Then, in the 1980s, when things were bad for us here, I had a phone call; there was a container waiting for me. It was a mistake, surely, but I went to see… It was from Hamburg. The children of those soldiers had sent us everything from toilet rolls to milk powder… ."
He paused, not for effect but to savour the remembered moment. I thought of Bernard Miles' saying: cast your bread upon the water and it will come back buttered.
When I wrote my play Maurice's Jubilee I had no idea it would return to me buttered with an experience unlike any I've had or will have. It enjoyed a modest success at Edinburgh Festival and on tour, and I was trying to convince someone to do it in London when I got an email asking if it could be done in Russian. I laughed; it's set in a bungalow in Penge, south London, and tells the story of an 89-year-old jeweller dying from cancer who has been in love with the Queen for 60 years; his wife's jealousy erupts in fury when it turns out that his determination to reach 90 is not his love for her, but the Queen's promise of coming to tea on his birthday.
My laughter stopped when another email arrived saying that Mr Tabakov, artistic director of the Moscow Art Theatre, was to present my play there with himself as Maurice, to celebrate his 80th birthday, and that they would fly my husband and me out to see it. I was stunned: the Moscow Art Theatre had hosted the premieres of Anton Chekhov's masterpieces; the standard of the acting company is second to none; it was a crucible for Stanislavsky, Meyerhold and Nemirovich-Danchenko; Olga Knipper and Chekhov had fallen in love there.
I had always wanted to see the legendary company in their own theatre but I was prejudiced, wary of tsarist heavy-handedness regarding homosexuality, freedom of expression and any form of opposition. What I found was something far more complex and interesting than the black and white of recent East–West posturing. I found a genuine conservatism, a reserve and what we would label "old-fashioned" attitudes – qualities that would have been regarded as British 40 years ago. Our image of dour, post-Soviet Russians is as wrong as theirs is of us as aggressively anti-Russian.
The contract said flights and three nights in a Moscow hotel. Three and a half hours from Heathrow, and a world away from Len Deighton (Aeroflot had shown The Ipcress File), we were delivered to the magnificent five-star Metropol hotel, which sits between the Bolshoi Theatre and the Kremlin. We'd been told of Russian hospitality and had brought a few small gifts, but this was just the beginning of a landslide of generosity. They gave us eight days packed with sights and experiences beyond our hopes – a private tour of the Kremlin; a stage box at the Bolshoi; visits to the Chekhov and Bulgakov museums and the Pushkin theatre – and through it all we were guided by my brilliant translator, Olga Varshaver.
But we were there to see my play. Sasha Popov, the wonderfully Chekhovian (mysterious, attractive, slightly dishevelled and melancholy) producer, took us round the Moscow Art Theatre, including Stanislavsky's dressing room, then showed us to our stage box. The play, extraordinarily different in this production, was exquisitely inhabited by Mr Tabakov, Natalia Tenyakova and Darya Moroz. The actor in me was humbled by their ability to allow the audience to follow and share every subtle nuance of voice and movement. At the end I joined the standing ovation, which was mostly for Mr Tabakov, but again I felt their generosity when I was laden with bouquets and taken on stage. The "reverence" (a deep ballet curtsy), taught me by Sir Kenneth MacMillan, finally came in useful.
We had planned to give our small gifts to the cast afterwards but were told Mr Tabakov would be too tired. Ridiculous. He led the champagne toasts (a prelude to the following day's official lunch); he hosted the table for three hours (he'd been scheduled to stay for one) leaving my husband, 20 years his junior, hors de vodka; and he left me stunned – and not from the alcohol or the magnificent Russian food. Without any warning he presented me, on behalf of the Moscow Art Theatre, with the Stanislavsky Award and Medal for Contribution to the World of Theatre, as well as with a framed citation and a gold pendant on a bar pin, inscribed with the theatre's seagull motif and Stanislavsky's name. Then, before I could reply, I was presented with a framed section of the original stage curtain, behind which all Chekhov's plays had been performed – the curtain which those legendary actors had touched, and which was familiar to the leaders of the revolution.
Tabakov's grandmother's legacy is now mine to pass on, along with a passion to inspire you to go to Moscow and experience the beauty, the art, the theatre, the ballet – and yes, the generosity – for yourself.Reuse content