To play or not to play? This eternal Hamlet question was sharpened and driven to the limit in the practice of modern cinema. During the shooting, not a single time could you hear directors pronounce the sacral phrase: “Just don’t play-act! This is no theatre; we are shooting a film here!” Every actor inevitably faces this dilemma and has to overcome it, as did Ashot Adamyan (b. 1953), who has been doing well for already forty years, equally and brilliantly succeeding both as a film and stage actor. I recall his master and teacher, the classic of Armenian cinema Henrik Malyan, praising and appreciating him for that very creative uniqueness, stressing that Adamyan is equally prosperous and recognizable on the screen and on the stage. So what is Adamyan’s special formula for success: an actor whose background consists of more than 30 films and as many theatrical performances.
Adamyan became known to the general public in the beginning of 1980s, in the era of “non-acting”—a time when there were changes in the air and the screen needed heroic individuals, who strongly declared themselves in real life. The spirit of the time more than anything else reflects the phrase of a famous critic announcing that Hamlets have become more thoughtful and natural. There was a need of actors who would not “play” but “live”; the audience was interested not only in skilled but also spiritually rich performances of individuals with a wide range of interests. Adamyan brought his personality and bright individuality to the screen. With him, Armenian cinema gained a hero who was familiar, smart, sensitive, and close to every heart; a hero with a positive energy, speaking of love, duty, honor and self-affirmation; a hero on the edge of good and evil, facing moral choices while making the right decision.
The vast number of Adamyan’s screen characters went through the process of moral quest: they were characters all in all strong enough to stick to their moral values, and sometimes even obliged to make a sacrifice. This is the essence of Torik from Henrik Malyan’s film A Piece of Sky (aka A Slap in the Face; Ktor me yerkinq, 1980). Not by chance Torik, with his honesty, determinedness and willingness to fight for his right to love, and considered as restricted from the point of view of the public, became the actor’s business card.
Adamyan did not “play” his characters, but he organically lived them, existed in the circumstances offered by the screen. He seemed to be playing “a piece of himself.” Obviously, this does not mean that the artist demonstrates his personal characteristics. The actor’s play included his ability of combining his individuality with aspects of his character; moreover, it supposed a richness of the actor’s personality that allowed him each time to find in himself the necessary qualities, thoughts and emotions for the role without repeating himself. This reveals the actor’s proficiency, and his ability to assure us that he is actually not “playing.”
At the same time in each role played by Adamyan almost an elusive distance exists between his character and himself that allows for some critical, ironic notes and the hint of a dual, ironic existence. If in the case of his debut roles (the short The Mute Witness [Hamr vkan], 1979, dir. A. Mokatsyan; A Piece of Sky, 1980), and in most of his roles of the 1980s, this distance is almost elusive, then with the course of time, along with the evolution of both the characters and the actor, the distance increases and leads in the end to the hero’s bifurcation in the film Tailless Hermit (Abpoch tchgnavore, directed by Khachik Chalikyan, 2012), where Adamyan played antipodes standing at opposite ends of history and on different sides of good and evil. On the one side stands the Armenian king Tiridates, a canonical figure in Armenian historiography, who proclaimed Christianity as the state religion during his reign; on the other side stands the “President,” a distinguishable though unidentified, but appellative figure of contemporary history, who—because of some circumstance—stands on the top of the social pyramid and is free from all kinds of moral and human obligations. This is one of the few examples of Adamyan’s characters with an absolute negative line. However, the stronger the actor’s civic position emerges from the image, the more powerful is the distance between character and actor that creates internal tension and emotional intensity.
Among the roles played by Adamyan, that of a guide in Atom Egoyan’s Calendar (1991) takes a quite special place. “Thoughtful and natural,” as well as extremely sincere, he personifies the organic connection with the homeland and its history, that a successful photographer (in the performance of Atom Egoyan) and his wife (in the performance of Arsinée Khanjian) are trying to regain, having come from distant Canada. It seems that Adamyan formulates and voices before the camera seemingly simple, but in fact very important issues for every person, especially for the artist.
There is a key scene in the film with an important conversation between the main characters. The guide is tired of his own enthusiasm and fruitless attempts to establish a spiritual link between the photographer of Armenian origin and those silent objects (churches) which he shoots; suddenly he steps out of the role as a guide and asks a personal question: why does this prosperous couple not have children? Without getting a definite answer to his question, the guide himself starts to weigh an argument: why did he suddenly ask such a question? If you had a child, you would have many more occasions to visit Armenia, as you would have to show the child the land of his/her ancestors… In other words, such a child would help the protagonists re-establish the lost connection with their national roots.
Adamyan perfectly blended into the non-classic triangle created by Egoyan. Openly and organically he caught the director’s improvisational style, in a sense becoming his co-author. Maybe the point here is that, by training and by way of thinking Adamyan is a director. In 1979 he graduated from the Directing Department of Yerevan State Pedagogical Institute (studio of Henrik Malyan); from 1987 until 1990 he studied at the Higher Courses for Scriptwriters and Directors in Moscow (studio of Rolan Bykov, one of the most prominent actors and filmmakers in Soviet Union). Afterwards, for many years he headed the Actor’s Theatre named after Henrik Malyan in Yerevan. Adamyan gives far more options of answers to the question “To play or not to play?”—both for cinema and for theatre, and not only in the classical sense mentioned above, but also in the most ordinary sense, when despite incredible demand, he rejects scripts and profitable offers (above all he rejects TV offers) simply because he does not find the moral component in the suggested roles which, as the actor stresses, was and still is the essence of his profession and the most significant argument in the dialogue with the audience.
This moral and civic core is crucial in other spheres where Adamyan (or simply “Adam,” as his friends and followers call him) is active. He was the head of the youth program “Max Liberty” on Radio Liberty Yerevan; he presented the programs “Simple Truths” and “Together with Adam” on AR-TV and on Armenian Public Radio; he is the author of a number of books and music albums; he represents Armenian cinema and theatre abroad; he has been jury member in international festivals and competitions. Most importantly, Adamyan confesses his extraordinary personality in every creation, not only in film and theatre, but also in all possible spheres and fields of his creative activity.
Susanna Harutyunyan © 2016
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