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Obituary: Yuri Lyubimov

Yuri Lyubimov. Photo: Christopher Pearce.

The son of Gypsy-peasant stock, Yuri Lyubimov stood at the centre of Russia’s theatrical life for much of the second half of the last century.

As founder, in 1964, of the Moscow-based Taganka Theatre of Drama and Comedy, he acquired an influence at home and abroad comparable to that of iconoclastic Western peers such as Ariane Mnouchkine, Peter Brook and Robert Wilson.

From the start, Taganka was a crucible for experimentation and provocation, a combustible mix that drew a large and loyal audience and brought Lyubimov’s name to international attention. It also brought the outspoken director (and the increasingly militant poet-actor Vladimir Vysotsky, a key figure in forming the company’s identity) to the attention of the Soviet authorities, with whom he had an uneasy, often difficult relationship.

Born in Yaroslavl, 250km north-east from Moscow, Lyubimov studied engineering before joining Michael Chekhov’s Second Moscow Art company in 1934. Conscripted into the Red Army in 1941, he worked in a morale-boosting song and dance ensemble, and after the war became a long-serving member of the Vakhtangov Theatre.

He made his directorial debut in Moscow in 1959, and by 1963 had established himself as a leading light of the avant-garde with a production of The Good Person of Szechwan. Incorporating elements drawn from music hall, circus and Oriental shadow plays together with wholly contemporary approaches to staging, Lyubimov employed design, lighting, music and staging to challenge artifice and break through the fourth wall.

Productions such as Ten Days That Shook the World (1965), Listen! (based on Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poetry, 1967) and an agenda-setting Hamlet (1971) began to trouble the Soviet authorities as much as they challenged and excited audiences. As political interference and censorship increased, Lyubimov occasionally produced opera in Europe, including Nono’s Al Gran Sole Carico d’Amore at La Scala, Milan (1975) and, in the early 1980s, both Tristan und Isolde in Bologna and Lulu in Chicago.

His first British production was a 1984 Crime and Punishment starring Michael Pennington as Raskolnikov at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, which earned Lyubimov an Evening Standard award for best direction. The same year, he was stripped of his Soviet citizenship.

He returned in 1985 to the Almeida Theatre with an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Possessed (which was screened the following year on Channel 4) and made his Royal Opera debut in 1986 with an admired Jenufa conducted by the then newly installed music director Bernard Haitink.

A disastrous Das Rheingold in 1988 led to a public falling out with Haitink and the abrupt replacement of Lyubimov by Gotz Friedrich as the director of a planned Ring cycle.

In 1989, with his Russian citizenship newly restored, Lyubimov brought the Taganka company to the Edinburgh International Festival and revived his Hamlet at the Leicester Haymarket (and subsequently the Old Vic prior to an international tour) in a production that The Stage noted “took Shakespeare into a new dimension [and] took theatre as a whole on to a new plane”.

His last British appearance was in 2004, again in Edinburgh, albeit as co-librettist, this time, of Al Gran Sole Carico d’Amore.

An actors’ dispute about payment for his Czech-language production of The Good Person of Szechwan provoked his retirement from theatre in 2011, although he continued to work in opera, staging Borodin’s Prince Igor at the Bolshoi Theatre as recently as 2013.

Yuri Lyubimov was born on September 30, 1917. He died in Moscow from heart failure on October 5, aged 97.

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