Lyubimov, titan of Russian theatre for half a century

5th October 2014, Comments 0 comments

Russian director Yuri Lyubimov, who died Sunday aged 97, dominated Russian theatre for half a century, working with the greatest artists from the 1930s to the present and influencing a new generation in post-Soviet Russia.

Lyubimov founded Moscow's Taganka Theatre, which he headed for 50 years, winning worldwide renown for his hugely visual and inventive shows.

President Vladimir Putin led tributes to the director, saying "it was hard to overestimate Yuri Lyubimov's role in the development of contemporary Russian theatre," his spokesman Dmitry Peskov told RIA Novosti.

"It's impossible to imagine theatre life in Russia without Yuri Petrovich Lyubimov," Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev wrote on Facebook.

Born in 1917 at the dawn of the Soviet era, Lyubimov led an extraordinary life that saw him endure the arrest of his parents by the Bolsheviks in the 1920s, be stripped of his Soviet citizenship in the 1980s and then return to his homeland in triumph.

He worked with some of the greatest luminaries in Soviet and Russian culture including director Vsevolod Meyerhold, who was shot in the purges; the composer Dmitry Shostakovich; writer Boris Pasternak; and the actor Vladimir Vysotsky.

Lyubimov's visual and innovative productions dazzled audiences in the Soviet Union, Russia and abroad ever since he rose to prominence as a director in the 1960s.

His life in the theatre began as an actor in Moscow in the mid-1930s when he took roles at the Vakhtangov Theatre, a house still famed for its highly expressionistic style.

He directed his first production at the Vakhtangov in 1959 but his big breakthrough was a production of Brecht's classic morality play "The Good Person of Szechwan" in 1963.

"He took Russian theatre into a new orbit, both aesthetically and politically," said Mark Zakharov, director of Moscow's Lenkom theatre, speaking to RIA Novosti.

Lyubimov went on to found the Taganka Theatre, where he would direct dozens of productions of plays and stage versions of Russian novels that made him world famous.

A particular success was his version of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel "Crime and Punishment", which was also put on in London to a rapturous reception but did not please the Soviet authorities.

According one anecdote, a Soviet diplomat told him at the time in the British capital: "We have seen the crime and now you will see the punishment."

Lyubimov was stripped of his Soviet citizenship after giving an interview to the Times newspaper in which he bluntly spoke out against Soviet cultural policies.

Lyubimov "overcame his fear and always stood up for his position as a citizen," the widow of dissident Gulag chronicler Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Nataliya Solzhenitsyna, told RIA Novosti on Sunday.

He had first run into major trouble with the Soviet authorities in 1980 when they banned his play about the late Vysotsky, who won immense fame for songs containing unusually sharp social commentary and died aged just 42 in 1980 during the Moscow Olympics.

In 1982 Lyubimov's production of Pushkin's politically loaded "Boris Godunov" was also banned.

For half a decade Lyubimov lived in exile, putting on theatre and opera productions in Europe and the United States. His name was famously removed from all programmes and posters at the Taganka theatre.

- Bolshoi debut at age 95 -

But with the onset of perestroika, Lyubimov returned to Moscow in triumph in 1988 and retained his near mythical status after the collapse of the Soviet Union, still putting on new productions in his nineties.

Both banned plays were triumphantly revived after his return in the late 1980s and he won back his Soviet passport and position as the Taganka theatre's artistic director.

The notoriously temperamental director's relationship with the Taganka theatre came to an abrupt end in 2011 when he fell out with the troupe during a tour in the Czech Republic and walked out while issuing a bitter parting shot against actors.

"I have no intention of working with this troupe. Let them be led by their trade union. I've had enough of this disgrace, these humiliations, this lack of desire to work, this desire just for money."

Yet Lyubimov lost none of his energy and returned to the Vakhtangov Theatre to direct a stage version of Dostoyevsky's classic novel "Demons" to great acclaim. He also created a new production of Borodin's opera Prince Igor at the Bolshoi Theatre that opened last year.

"I can find work anywhere," he said at the age of 95. "I've been working since I was 14. All my family was in prison. This is why I am what I am, I had a difficult life, I didn't flit about."

© 2014 AFP

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