Saturday, 1 October 2011

Someone to remember

I am reading a biography of a person whom I admire and whom I have had the privilege of knowing. Many, many years ago in my previous life, Staffan and I were interpreting at a meeting between Russian and Nordic theatre people. We were doing it as a favour to colleagues, without payment, and as anyone who has ever interpreted knows, it is easier to interpet from your mother tongue to a foreign language, so I was interpreting from Russian into Swedish, and Staffan from Swedish into Russian. After a while, a formidable woman in her sixties interrupted quite rudely: "Why don't you do it the other way round?" I was deeply offended, and Staffan phoned the culprit the day after and gave her third degree. This was how we first met the legendary Vivica Bandler. The result of the encounter was that Staffan and Vivica wrote a musical together. I was rather jealous of Vivica at the time because I didn't see much of Staffan for weeks, and he seemed to be having fun. I was consulted about a couple of Russian details that Vivica dismissed as theatrically insignificant.

We were both invited to Vivica's seventieth birthday in Helsinki, which was a parade of cultural celebrities. It started with drinks in the theatre where she had been director and producer, continuied with a splendid dinner in her magnificent mansion, and when Staffan and I, around 2 am, prepared to leave, Vivica said: "So early? We are going back to the theatre for nibbles!"

A couple of years later Vivica called me and asked whether I would like to translate a play. As her biographer points out - a well-known fact to all who have ever met her - "nobody could say no to her on the phone". She was organising a Finnish theatre festival in Moscow, and she wanted one play to be done in Russian, with two actors of Russian ancestry. The play guested Stockholm, and Vivica took me to see it twice before I started the translation. It was a challenge, because the actors' Russian was nursery talk, while the play used modern, colloquial, not to say explicit idiom which they found totally alien.

 We flew to Moscow, me joining them in Helsinki. Nobody met us when we emerged through passport control and customs. Vivica was angry. In fact she was furious. Vivica furious was a sight. An hour later, she was paged. Our hosts were waiting for her in the VIP room. I didn't see much of her during the festival week because she was a Very Important Guest and I was just a translator (as well as a prompter, since the actors kept losing their swearwords). Yet it was fun to be part of her entourage. At one point, she was asked whether she had been to Russia before. "Yes, she said, in 1943". The hosts were awed. "During the war?" "Yes, Vivica confirmed, when little Finland tried to invade the Soviet Union". This was Vivica's typical sarcasm, possibly lost on the hosts. She had served in women's auxilliary forces at the front.  

Regrettably, after that we lost touch and only met occasionally. It was with deep sorrow Staffan and I read about her death in 2004. The biography I am reading brings back many details I have heard and some that I have witnessed about this truly remarkable person.

If you wonder why you would bother about a stranger, many people know her well as Vifslan (Bob in English) in Tove Jansson's Moomin books.

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