Edited and translated from Russian by Maria Shevtsova[1]

Yury Lyubimov
Yury Lyubimov

Maria Shevtsova: You have had a rich life. What do you see as being the happiest period of creative work in this life?

Yury Lyubimov[2] : [long pause] I am deep in thought. [long pause] I would probably say The Master and Margarita [1977]. As usual, nobody believed that this would pass censorship and be staged, although it [the book] was published. I convinced them that I was taking the Russian version with cuts, and not the full version, which we had but which did not exist abroad. It was about this time that I met Katerina [Lyubimov’s wife]. Inwardly, I dedicated this production to her: it’s the way things coincided.

The production worked out for me, whereas no one has ever managed to do it. Something has always happened to this production. Either the tapes were lost, or people only took one side of it. [Andrzej] Wadja, among the Poles, took only the Woland line, and he did not appear to be happy with it.

As usual, the actors were rather reticent at the beginning but, afterwards, they said they would like to play it. I will not name names, all the more so because some of them are still alive. Actors are complex people; they are deeply ungrateful and treacherous – worse than women.

Or men?

Well, yes. You won’t say it better than Chekhov did: An actor is about seventy-five years behind a normal person. Rare is the writer who tore actors to pieces as much as Chekhov. He could not bear them, and he wasn’t particularly kind about his own wife [Olga Knipper-Chekhova at the Moscow Art Theatre].

And The Master and Margarita?

I made this production surprisingly quickly and easily – over forty-five rehearsals, and it is still being performed. Every production, like every child, comes out in its own way. Sometimes it is very difficult, not least because of censorship. Where The Master was concerned, they constantly called me in. They would ask me, ‘Who gave you permission?’ And I would say, ‘I am not dong anything unlawful. All of you know I have been rehearsing this and now you are asking me who gave me permission. It’s strange. You constantly speak with me like public prosecutors, as if I were some kind of criminal. It has been published, so why can’t I do it? So I finished the production, called the [Party] committee, and the committee approved it, but you keep telling me I cannot do it.’

It was not only the themes of The Master and Margarita that made the work sensitive but because it was theatre, and theatre brings people together.

Of course.

And it was the Taganka Theatre, not any old theatre.

Well, they were always on my back. They didn’t like me. I was different, and not one of them, although my grandfather was a serf and an Old Believer. My father was wealthy, for which reason he was incarcerated. They incarcerated my mother, as well, and also my aunt; and, as a child, I went back and forth carrying sugar, dried bread, and so on, as people did for those who had been put away. My mother was born in Rybinsk and I had to travel there and get through to her despite the fact that they tried to stop me because the train came in at night. I suppose my character is impertinent and daring. I banged on the doors and then hit the iron gates with my feet and then threw stones at the gates. Eventually somebody looked out, swore at me and called an officer or someone else in the higher ranks. So they let me in, and my mother began to weep. Even then [at that early age], I showed my character and told her not to dare to cry in front of these people. So I was toughened up early. And I went through two World Wars. There were three of us, myself and my brother and sister. We were lucky. They could have separated us, and then we would have had nothing at all.

In 1964 you staged The Good Woman of Szechuan at your acting school and then transferred it to the Taganka.

Yes, the production was successful and began to get good reviews, so the press and the working class supported me. I made the production in my third year of studies and did this quite consciously because the production could run for one year and allow me to have experience, [to learn] how to play before an audience, sing songs and really enter into contact with audiences through songs and understand what political theatre was. No matter how you might want to get around it, Brecht was the founder of political theatre. The Soviets put a label on me, saying that I worked in political theatre and, since I was working in it, I had to be put under surveillance: not a step out of line, or I would be shot.

I always polemicized against socialist realism – it was boring, it was gibberish, the same kind of gibberish as Stanislavsky’s system, which they shoved in because it was convenient for the Soviet regime.

Well, they made it convenient.

Of course they did! Poor Stanislavsky. The point wasn’t a system. He wanted to create a manual to help actors, but this is nonsense because you cannot do that. It won’t help in art. You can’t learn from a book how to act. Everybody teaches [from it] in the same way and you get a cliché, but a cliché kills individuality. What is happening around us in the theatre, especially in repertory theatre, is complete idiocy. It is the destruction of everything. It involves tonnes of paper [work]: How much money are you going to spend on nails? – and other such nonsense. And then there are tenders! With all this rubbish going on, I handed in my resignation. You cannot possibly work in such conditions.

I have taken from Brecht’s aesthetics, but I am not this or that, or whatever people want me to be. I think I am my own person. My practice is enormous. When they threw me out of the Soviet Union, I travelled the whole world, and I also staged thirty operas in various theatres across the world. I staged opera when the Italians called me; [there was] Luigi Nono, a composer on the left, who was very gifted and wonderful person. This was the Berlinguer period. [Enrico Berlinguer was the leader of the Italian Communist Party, 1972-1984.] The Italians always thought they would create a different [political] system, but I told them that nothing different would come of it, that nothing different could come out of communism. Communism was a wild utopia.

I constantly quarrelled with the political powers. They were always cutting something out of my productions. They threw me out of the theatre about four times. They found in me someone on whom they could construct their ideological struggle. They found someone whom they could continually hit.

Where did you hear that they had taken away your citizenship from you? [1984]

In London, and the BBC also came to me and told me. They [the Soviet powers] told me my office was being painted. They appointed [Anatoly] Efros [to head the Taganka], but he should not have gone. He knew me well and we had stood up to the authorities together. I helped him when they deprived him of the possibilities for working in Moscow; and we expressed our contempt for our rulers out aloud to them.

Can we say that your theatre themes were provocative? You could have chosen different themes and performed differently.

No, I couldn’t have.

Why not?

I must be a protestor! But why did they call me back? For political reasons: ‘We are good, so please come. We are open.’ [YL in reply] ‘I didn’t crawl to you. You invited me, and now, too, if you don’t like me, I can hand in my resignation’.

Did you want to come back to Russia?

I wasn’t overjoyed by the prospect. Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev asked me to come back. The actors wrote to me, asking me to come back. They rang me at night, together, when I was in Washington, telling me everything had changed with [Nikolai] Gubenko, who was now in charge of the Taganka.

[Here Katerina, Lyubimov’s wife, asks if she can add something and says:
It was necessary for Gorbachev that such people as Solzhenitsyn, Lyubimov and Rostropovich come back, and, after that, Gubenko was made the Minister of Culture of the USSR. In other words, this was necessary for them and not for Lyubimov, or Rostropovich, or Solzhenitsyn. Perestroika was then underway, and the idea was to return these names to Russia.]

[Lyubimov continues] It was political. They needed us.

Do you regret having come back?

It is difficult to say. You know, working here was never great fun, and now it’s simply impossible. First of all, I’m old [94 years old], so I can choose not to work. Yet, I have more than half a century of activity behind me, and I would like to pass it into good hands and not into bad ones, which could destroy it in half a year. There is no doubt about it: they would destroy it.


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[1] Maria Shevtsova is Professor of Drama and Theatre Arts at the Department of Theatre and Performance, Goldsmiths, University of London. She is an invited theatre critic at the annual Golden Mask National Theatre Award and Festival in Moscow, among other festivals.  She is the co-editor of New Theatre Quarterly published by Cambridge University Press, an editor of Critical Stages, and on the editorial boards of several international journals, including Polish Theatre Perspectives.  Shevtsova works closely with directors and theatre companies, and her numerous publications include Dodin and the Maly Drama Theatre: Process to Performance  (2004), Robert Wilson (2007) and Sociology of Theatre and Performance (2009), which also reflects her theatre-criticism and theoretical concerns.
[2] Yuri Lyubimov was the long-time Artistic Director of Moscow’s Taganka Theatre and a frequent critic of Soviet cultural policy. He lived in exile for many years in the latter part of his life. He was interviewed in St. Petersburg where he was honoured for his contribution to Russian and international theatre life.

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Yury Lyubimov in Interview with Maria Shevtsova, 15 April 2011, St Petersburg.