|November 29, 2011|
Ramaz Chkhikvadze, who has died aged 83, caused a sensation when he appeared on stage as Richard III at the 1979 Edinburgh Festival in a production of Shakespeare’s play by the Rustaveli Theatre Company of Tbilisi, Georgia, then still part of the Soviet Union.
Though the actors performed in their own language, Chkhikvadze’s performance at the Lyceum won such ecstatic reviews (one critic christened him the “Olivier of the Caucasus”) that Thelma Holt, who ran the Roundhouse in London, persuaded Robert Maxwell to fund a transfer.
In a later article entitled “The Best Performance I’ve Ever Seen”, Simon Callow (one of many actors lured to the theatre “by the rumoured prospect of a new acting genius”) recalled the opening scene: “The set occupied the whole of the Roundhouse, but it was functional — a platform, an insecure-looking throne, a piano, a blank cyclorama. Presently, a man in white face went to the piano and started to play a tinkly, mocking little tune and we became aware of someone walking towards us, from deep in the set, a stocky, brutal man with a huge head whose smile was fixed in a rictus, like a gaping wound across his face. His eyes, ringed with kohl, were huge and black.”
When Chkhikvadze started to speak, Callow recalled, “his voice was huge and steely, but he rarely raised it above the conversational. There were no subtitles; the play was done in Georgian, but it was always perfectly clear what he was saying.” The performance, Callow recalled, “had an awful excitement: this man was dangerous to his black-gloved fingertips”. During the coronation scene, Chkhikvadze snatched the crown from the Archbishop of Canterbury and put it on his own head: “A shudder ran through the auditorium: England was in the hands of a madman. It was epic and personally terrifying: a perfect Shakespearean moment.”
But in an interview Chkhikvadze explained that he felt that the power of the character lay in the fact that Richard III was “like an archetype within us” and claimed to find sympathetic qualities in the role: “We can’t say, for example, he is all malice, or all venom. Don’t forget that Richard also fights for what he believes in, what he sees as unfair forces against him.” After Chkhikvadze’s performances in Britain, he received a delegation from a society dedicated to rescuing Richard’s reputation from the Tudor propagandists. They had come to thank him for the insight and understanding he had brought to the role of the much maligned monarch.
It was his understanding of the complexity of the human psyche that made Chkhikvadze so compelling as an actor, and it is, perhaps, not unreasonable to speculate that the roots of his characterisation of Richard were to be found in the recent history of his native Georgia — the birthplace of Stalin. “To give birth to a character,” Chkhikvadze explained, “you amalgamate your fantasy, your intuition, your emotional memory, your knowledge of history and your knowledge of literature. It is an amalgam of everything you know.” Richard, he felt, was a sort of universal politician: “Now we see the Richards around us again, only perhaps more vicious and more malicious than ever.”
Born in Tbilisi on February 28 1928, Ramaz Grigoryevich Chkhikvadze was the son of Grigol Chkhikvadze, the head of the Tbilisi conservatoire. He was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a musician, but at the Tbilisi Theatre Institute he came under the influence of the director Mikhail Tumanishvili. In 1951 he joined Georgia’s national theatre, the Rustaveli, and, in partnership with the director Robert Sturua, soon became one of its stars.
Arranging for the Rustaveli company to be given permission to travel from the Soviet Union to Edinburgh in 1979 was a considerable coup for the Edinburgh Festival’s new director John Drummond. In his autobiography, Drummond recalled seeing the company in Moscow: “On the spot I invited them to come to Edinburgh; it would have been madness not to do so.” They were reluctant, but they eventually agreed after Drummond mounted the stage and made a heartfelt plea in broken Russian. At the Lyceum, Chkhikvadze also appeared as Azdak in Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle, though it was his performance as Richard III that left audiences spellbound.
The transfer to London nearly did not happen. In December 1979 the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and the Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, tried to persuade the Roundhouse to cancel the visit. When the Rustaveli troupe arrived, they had to run the gauntlet of anti-Soviet demonstrations outside the theatre, though, as Thelma Holt recalled, “Ramaz did not understand a word they were saying. He smiled, because he was used to people smiling back.” Every night the management received a phone call in which they were told that there was a bomb in the auditorium, with the result that throughout the visit there were two buses full of policemen in the car park outside.
Inside, however, the Rustaveli received long standing ovations.
As well as appearing in dozens of roles on stage, including King Lear, Chkhikvadze starred in some 60 films. In 1991, shortly after the end of communism, he starred in Irakli Kvirikadze’s absurdist black comedy Comrade Stalin’s Trip to Africa, as a Georgian Jewish factory worker and Stalin look-alike who suddenly finds himself picked by the NKVD to stand in for the Soviet leader, who frequently used doubles. The double is naively proud of his role, while Stalin is furious at being “played” by a Jew. The film was an ironic satire on the Soviet Union’s obsession with constructing images of the “Great Leader”.
In 1985 Chkhikvadze returned to Britain to reprise part of his Richard III at the Old Vic during a gala evening in memory of the actor Sir Michael Redgrave.
Chkhikvadze was a People’s Actor of Georgia and of the former USSR and won many Georgian and international prizes.
Ramaz Chkhikvadze’s wife, Natasha, died suddenly six weeks before him. He is survived by their son.
Ramaz Chkhikvadze, born February 28 1928, died October 17 2011.
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