Yuri Lyubimov: Actor and director who served as a beacon of dissent in the Soviet Union before becoming a venerable elder statesman

 

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For almost three-quarters of a century Yuri Lyubimov was the embodiment of Soviet and Russian theatre: first as an actor, then as a pioneering director and a beacon for liberal dissent under Communism, finally as rehabilitated and venerated cultural elder statesman – a symbol of how, throughout his country's history, the arts and artists have had an importance far beyond their mere cultural merit.

Born into a middle class family in the provincial city of Yaroslavl on the eve of the revolution, Lyubimov fell in love with theatre at an early age. He was only 20 when he made his acting debut at the Vakhtangov, the most innovative Moscow theatre of the day, before war broke out in 1941 and he was drafted into the Red Army. His talents kept him from the front line; instead he served, improbably, as a compere for the choir and dance ensemble of the NKVD, Stalin's dreaded state security organisation that was the forerunner of the KGB.

With the return of peace he returned to the Vakhtangov as a permanent member of the company but his interest gradually shifted from acting to directing, and to teaching at the prestigious Shchukin Institute, Moscow's leading drama academy. In 1959 he directed his first production at the Vakhtangov, and then four years later, came the breakthrough that transformed Lyubimov's career, his version The Good Person of Szechwan.

Brecht's morality play tells of a prostitute, Shen Te, who seems to the gods to be the only good person in her city. The play, only authorised under the cultural liberalisation permitted by Nikita Khrushchev, was wildly popular, not least thanks to its use of devices such as mime and a largely bare stage. On the strength of it, Lyubimov was named director of the new Taganka Theatre.

The Taganka opened in April 1964 with The Good Person of Szechwan, followed by a less successful production of Mikhail Lermontov's 19th century novel A Hero for Our Times. Both featured a dissident young poet, balladeer and actor called Vladimir Vysotsky. The partnership between the two would make the Taganka's reputation for ever. With the fall of Khrushchev in October 1964 Moscow's cultural climate grew chillier but Lyubimov continued to thrive. In 1971 came a hugely acclaimed production of Hamlet, with Vysotsky as the hero.

The production bore all Lyubimov's hallmarks: bold adaptation of a classical text (including part of a Pasternak poem), and a stark set dominated by a moving curtain that in the words of one critic controlled the action, "moving around and between the actors, like a giant monster... setting the pace, and holding within its folds the symbols and tools of power." In 1977 he brought Mikhail Bulgakov's long-banned masterpiece The Master and Margarita to the Taganka stage – another colossal success.

All of which made Lyubimov a hero of the liberal-minded intelligentsia born of the Khrushchev era, skating on the cliff edge of regime tolerance. His experimentalism alone, in a country as culturally conservative as the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union, would have been distinction enough. Add to that his criticism of the party and its works – sometimes covert, sometimes overt – and his professional survival was remarkable.

Somehow he managed it, thanks in part to the blind eye turned by powerful figures like Yuri Andropov, KGB chief and later Soviet leader. Andropov's children had sought to join the Taganka company, but Lyubimov turned them away, insisting they should complete their university degrees first. "I have to thank you as a father, because you convinced my children of something my wife and I could not," Andropov told him later.

Lyubimov's most effective shield was the popularity of Vysotsky. With the latter's death in 1980, at just 42, the outpouring of grief that accompanied Vsyotsky's funeral scared the Kremlin stiff. Thereafter Lyubimov's productions were banned, among them a tribute show, The Poet Vladimir Vysotsky.

Four years later he was he was stripped of his Soviet citizenship during a trip to London, when he gave an interview to The Times that was fiercely critical of the Communist regime. "They have taken away the most precious thing I had. How dare they? No foreign enemy… could possibly do the damage to our culture that these stupid little men have done."

In exile, Lyubimov's services were sought by the great theatres and opera houses of the US and Europe. Unlike many Russian exiles however, he was able to return, amid the unprecedented reforms under Mikhail Gorbachev.

Re-installed at the Taganka, he picked up with a string of productions new and old, and international tours. Only in 2011 did the relationship end – perhaps, fittingly, where it began – with The Good Person of Szechwan, due to be performed on a tour of the Czech Republic. The actors refused to rehearse until they were paid. "Enough of this disgrace… this lack of desire to work, this desire just for money," he declared and a week later resigned. Even then Lyubimov continued to work, staging the opera Prince Igor at the Bolshoi at the age of 95. The news of his death led Russian TV news, a far cry from the days when his very name was unmentionable in his own land.

Yuri Petrovich Lyubimov, actor and director: born Yaroslavl, Russia 30 September 1917; married 1983 Katalin Koncz (one son); died Moscow 5 October 2014.

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