Translator, theatrical adviser and author of 'An Estonian Childhood'
Saturday 11 December 2004
In early 1970s, the BBC drama department had the inspired idea of commissioning a series of adaptations of Chekhov's short stories. One of these was
A Misfortune (1973), directed by Ken Loach, with Ben Kingsley, Lucy Fleming and myself in the leading roles. Loach, already celebrated for his gritty realism and originality, showed himself in this rare excursion into classic literature a complete master of the genre, and this 40-minute film is remembered by aficionados of film as an important and unexpected moment in Loach's career.
Tatiana (Tania) von Benckendorff, writer, translator and theatrical adviser: born St Petersburg 15 January 1915; married 1940 Bernard Alexander (died 1990; one son, two daughters); died London 5 December 2004.
In early 1970s, the BBC drama department had the inspired idea of commissioning a series of adaptations of Chekhov's short stories. One of these was A Misfortune (1973), directed by Ken Loach, with Ben Kingsley, Lucy Fleming and myself in the leading roles. Loach, already celebrated for his gritty realism and originality, showed himself in this rare excursion into classic literature a complete master of the genre, and this 40-minute film is remembered by aficionados of film as an important and unexpected moment in Loach's career.
On the set in a country house in Norfolk, where it was shot - diligently watching, concentrating, now and then making the odd suggestion and encouraging as well as educating the actors, who dedicated themselves to finding the truth of these Russian people - was the tall, elegant and utterly beguiling figure of Tania Alexander.
Born in St Petersburg in 1915, the daughter of Ioann von Benckendorff and the extraordinary Moura Budberg (at one time the mistress of Maxim Gorky), Alexander was the perfect choice to advise on the customs and manners of a Russian country house. Her mother, who died in 1974, had herself been an adviser to Alexander Korda, and it was her translation of Chekhov that Laurence Olivier used for his 1970 film Three Sisters. Tania Alexander as much as Loach, in her own subtle way, helped create in A Misfortune a totally convincing creation of a vanished world.
Tania had the ability to be both authoritative and modest at the same time. It was not long before the company of actors became her adoring slaves and her beautiful smile and wry sense of the absurd captivated the cast. It was simply impossible not to become her friend.
I think I can take credit for being her unofficial "agent", for shortly after this joyous encounter I recommended her to Jonathan Miller. He soon invited her to assist on his Eugene Onegin for Kent Opera, where the unforgettably dreamy Tatiana of Jill Gomez dominated. Gomez was another immediate friend, who remained close to Tania. For Miller she also provided authentic detail and a carefully rehearsed Russian drinking song for the second act of his definitive Three Sisters. This magnificent production ran in the West End (Cambridge Theatre) in 1976, winning for the director and Janet Suzman, who played Masha, most of the significant theatre awards. At that time it was the longest-running Chekhov play ever to be staged in London.
My little joke with my "client" Tania was that she had to do the job on offer because she always brought luck to the productions. Virtually all of them were hits. She assisted very much from the side, but the carefully timed suggestion, sometimes out of the earshot of the director, could unlock a moment for the actor. When I played the aristocratic Baron Tuzenbach in the Miller production, a throwaway remark she made about the appropriate military bearing for someone in uniform made me realise she was sending me a discreetly disguised "note". One I was happy to absorb.
At the English National Opera she worked on Colin Graham's Boris Godunov when the young John Tomlinson stifled the house with his beautifully modulated singing of the old monk Pimen. Last year she told me she wept with pride when he watched Tomlinson dominate the Royal Opera House stage as the Tsar Boris. "And his Russian was good too," she added, maybe slightly regretful that she hadn't this time been involved.
Tania Alexander had been involved in so many interesting and diverse productions. She spoke eloquently, even rapturously, about the unknown Nicholas Hytner years before anyone else after his Queen of Spades at Brighton. With Charles Sturridge she adapted The Seagull he directed with Vanessa Redgrave in 1985 (their translation appeared in book form the following year). With Julian Mitchell she worked on August (1995), the film version of Uncle Vanya starring Anthony Hopkins. Earlier she had worked on the National Theatre Vanya with Ian McKellen. At the Almeida she assisted Jonathan Kent on Chatsky and Chekhov's Ivanov with Ralph Fiennes and Harriet Walter. She admired both these actors, and her friendship with them was cemented when they worked together again on the 1999 film Onegin.
When I told her I was looking for a translator for Klaus Mann's play Geschwister ( Siblings) but couldn't find anybody. She said sternly: "What's wrong with me? My German is as good as my Russian." We adapted it together, and it was performed with great success at the Lyric, Hammersmith, in 1989. Three years later it was published by Marion Boyars along with Mann's novella Kindernovelle ( The Children's Story) - also translated by Alexander.
Earlier, in 1987, she had published a memoir, A Little of All These, published in America as simply Tania (1988), and in paperback in Britain as An Estonian Childhood (1989). In this delightful book she describes her childhood on her father's estate in Estonia, her summers in Italy with her mother and Maxim Gorky, and her arrival in England in the 1930s where another lover of her mother's, H.G. Wells, gave her a typewriter she kept for the rest of her life. Before long she learned typing and shorthand, and got a job at the publishers Secker and Warburg.
In 1940 she married Bernard Alexander, an international lawyer whose work for the United Nations took them to New York and, for seven years, Geneva. Her three children, Natasha, John and Helen, and their children (and now their children's children) all remained closely involved with her throughout her life. Her house in Oxfordshire next to her son's on one side, and her daughter Helen's and her husband Tim Suter's on the other, had the improvisatory feel of a house in a play by Chekhov or Turgenev. A child, a friend, someone helping out, might wander in, unexpected, unannounced, always welcomed - she had that selfless ability to give her complete attention to everyone. Even in her late eighties her energy and passion for people seemed limitless.
As someone who knew Tania Alexander from the theatre, I realised when I witnessed her extraordinarily warm family life that being in a theatre, at the opera house, on a film set was just another extension of her life as a mother. It was all entirely natural to her. We became her family as we sat together, laughing, listening and learning in the rehearsal room. We knew we were lucky.
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