Actor, choreographer, theatre-maker
Born June 20 1973; died October 15 2014
Written by Neil Cooper for The Herald, published on October 20th 2014
Damir Todorovic, who has died aged 41 following a short struggle with cancer, was an actor prepared to go places others feared to tread. This may not have been immediately obvious in a stream of film and TV roles in which the Serbian-born performer's shaved head and sharp East European features saw him frequently play the bad guy. With the Glasgow-based Vanishing Point theatre company in shows such as the award-winning Interiors, The Beggars Opera and Wonderland, however, he created parts that were quietly intense and which, by way of Vanishing Point's devising methods, were born from a place deep within him.
It was made even clearer just how far Todorovic was prepared to go in As It Is, a show created by himself in which he strapped himself to a lie detector while being interrogated about his time as a young soldier in the Serbian army during the Balkan conflicts in 1993. Originally commissioned by the Belluard Bollwerk International Festival in Switzerland and later produced in an English language version by Vanishing Point in Glasgow, As It Is made for uncomfortable but fascinating viewing. It tapped into a period in Todorovic's life that had clearly left its mark, and which shaped his artistic choices thereafter. As with everything Todorovic did, As It Is was also a search for truth, even as it confronted his own past.
“Thinking about this, after twenty years, it feels like a dream,” Todovoric said of his time on the frontline in an interview with the Herald in 2013, “so thinking about what's happened since in terms of my identity, I was a little confused. What happened was my own experience, but some of that could be products of my imagination. So I wanted to see what has happened to my memory, and to the memory of the people, and to examine all these experiences.”
Todorovic was born in the small town of Vrsac in Serbia, and trained at the National Academy of Drama Arts in Novi Sad. At the beginning of his career, he was a member of CZKD (Centre for Cultural Decontamination) and BITEF Theatre, both centres of artistic and political resistance with whom he performed in socially provocative interpretations of Kafka, Genet, and Shakespeare. In 2002, Todorovic performed at the Venice Biennale with Italian theatre company Motus, and went on to work extensively in Italy, France and the former Yugoslavia.
It was while living in Italy that Todorovic auditioned for Vanishing Point in 2008. This was for a new co-production with the Napoli Festival that became Interiors. Once spotted by Vanishing Point artistic director Matthew Lenton over the extensive auditioning process, Todorovic developed the character of the mysterious stranger in Interiors who is inexplicably invited to the meal on the darkest night of the year that is the show's centrepiece.
“Damir was brilliant at improvising,” Lenton remembers of the man who became one of his best friends and greatest collaborators, “thinking laterally and creatively, with his eyes wide open. He was fearless, sometimes eccentric, always experimental, never afraid to try something.”
One of the starting points for Interiors had been a quote from the Venerable Bede, about how the life of man on earth was like the 'swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall', one minute there, gone the next. It was perhaps significant too that the insignia of Todorovic's website was the shadow of a black crow.
“Damir could relate to this,” says Lenton of the Venerable Bede's words. “In Interiors and in life, Damir had charisma, charm, warmth and was always compelling to watch. He was open and eccentric and, importantly, had the ability to provoke others. I loved this quality. If he sensed someone was inauthentic, he could have an acid tongue (I was on the receiving end of it at times), though it mostly remained in his cheek.”
Interiors was to mark the beginning of a major ongoing collaboration with Vanishing Point, that saw him become a vital member of Vanishing Point's international ensemble. He appeared in the company's comic-strip style cyber-punk reimagining of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, and in Wonderland, an unflinching examination of pornography by way of Alice in Wonderland presented as part of 2012's Edinburgh International Festival. Todorovic played the brutal film director, his face looming frighteningly on the big screen at the back of the stage as he clutched his young victim.
Todorovic toured with Interiors all over the world with a company that Lenton describes as a family, and in which he was one of three original members of the cast who stayed throughout each international excursion.
Outside of Vanishing Point, Todorovic continued to develop his own work, and followed As It Is with Holiday On Stage, a collaboration with Martin Schick that explored western capitalism's relationship with art. The show was seen in Switzerland, across Europe and at the Brighton Festival.
It was As It Is, however, that remained Todorovic's most personal work.
“Damir saw and suffered things during those years [of the Balkan conflicts] that many of us in western Europe can only imagine,” Lenton says. “His subsequent pursuit of the artistic life was authentic, real and shaped by his experiences as a young man. That is also probably why he didn't suffer fools gladly. He could live the high life because he had suffered the hard life.”
Todorovic was mid-way through developing Vanishing Point's recent show, Tomorrow, when his cancer was diagnosed, and as his treatment became more severe, he was forced to pull out of the show. His unique signature nevertheless remains embedded in the finished piece, a hauntingly beautiful meditation on caring for the elderly. Last weekend Todorovic was scheduled to begin re-rehearsing Interiors for the show's forthcoming dates in Poland, but reluctantly emailed Lenton to say he was too ill to take part.
Lenton remained in contact with Todorovic via a close friend, and emailed a message of love while he was undergoing a blood transfusion, and asked if he wanted anything in return. Todorovic responded with a YouTube link to a rare recording of the Beatles singing Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown). It was, says Lenton, “a very Damir gesture”, that brought to mind the black crow of Todorovic's website and the Venerable Bede's sparrow.
“Was Damir that bird, leaving the banqueting hall?” Lenton ponders. “I think he was, and he knew it.”
Having spent so much time in Scotland, Todorovic thought of Glasgow as his second home, and often talked of moving to the city where he had forged so many friendships and creative partnerships with like-minded people.
“We don't need machines to discover what is deeply within ourselves,” Todorovic said in 2013 when talking about As It Is. “Contact with human beings is much more important. That's how we find the truth.”
Todorovic is survived by his mother, Branislava Todorovic, and his brother, Borko Todorovic.
The Herald, October 20th 2014 (Neil Cooper)