Some 10 years or so ago, a friend, returning from Russia to England where I live, told me he had seen a great production of The Three Sisters directed by Yuri Lubimov at the Taganka Theatre in Moscow. The action was split among three platforms, and sometimes the actors spoke simultaneously on all three. At the end of the play, the side wall of the stage rose to reveal, outside, Moscow lit up at night, the dream city the sisters long for but will never get to. I thought that such tampering with Chekhov could only be done by a director with such an ego it couldn’t possibly be transcended by the production.
Shortly after, Lubimov came to London to mount his own adaptation of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. In a newspaper interview, he said he was finding it difficult to direct outside his own group of actors at the Taganka, not only because he couldn’t speak English and the English actors couldn’t understand Russian, but because he knew nothing about the beliefs of the actors–for instance, were they, actors in a profoundly Christian play, themselves practicing Christians? That he should require his actors to be in their lives what they played on the stage struck me as dangerously manipulative. But, finally, curiosity about how Lubimov realized his religious beliefs on the stage compelled me to go. And the production roused in me, a non-believer, something that I cannot imagine any contemporaneous religious rite rousing–a sense of overwhelming compassion for the suffering world.
This was 1983. The year before, Lubimov’s production of Pushkin’s verse drama Boris Godunov had been banned in Moscow as subversive. In London, he announced he would not return to the U.S.S.R., and a year later his Soviet citizenship was lifted, in retaliation, by the Communist authorities. He went on working in the West. In London, he directed his own adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Possessed. The production seemed hysterical, and I found myself resisting, until, tears suddenly welling into my eyes, I couldn’t but give in.
In 1985, when I went to Moscow, the great theatre historian Constantine Rudnitsky told me all Russian theatregoers were grieving the absence of Lubimov–as great a director, he believed, as Meyerhold or Stanislavsky. The Taganka was not worth going to. But Lubimov’s supporters kept his office there just as he had left it, his jacket still over his chair, waiting for his return, as impossible as it seemed. It had to be admitted: He was a very difficult man.
In 1987, when I returned to Moscow, friends asked if I had any news of Lubimov. He had, I said, been invited by Covent Garden to direct Wagner’s The Ring, but his production of the first of the operas, Das Rheingold, had been so badly received by the critics, he’d left. He lived in Israel now. The possibility of his returning to Moscow seemed more remote than ever, as he had signed a letter which denounced Gorbachev’s reforms as mere window-dressing. I was told, sadly, that his jacket was still hanging on the back of his office chair at the Taganka.
One day in Moscow I met Lubimov’s ex-assistant, who told me enthusiastically that Lubimov’s Boris Godunov was going to be revived at the Taganka in defiance of the official ban. She got me a ticket. In the Metro station nearest the theatre I was accosted by ticket-seekers, and felt guilty about not simply giving mine to a Russian. The night was cold with deep snow, and there was a dark, intense crowd pressing in on the modern brick theatre. The bare auditorium was packed in a way that fire regulations would never allow in the West–people sitting on aisle steps, on a ledge along a wall so high I saw them hiking one another up to get up to it. Squabbles erupted over seating. The empty stage appeared vast in the darkness.
Pushkin’s play, notoriously difficult to perform, seemed to occur in that darkness. In the back wall were rows of windows at which the actors appeared and disappeared, opening and slamming shutters. There were few props, the most used being an old bucket an actor from time to time held up to his mouth to give a haunting echo to his voice. Boris died and was borne in procession on a plank. It was not an opera, but I, hardly understanding, listened to the voices as if they were music. The most telling image was that of little barefoot boys in white smocks whose innocence in the midst of darkness called out for help beyond our helplessness.
Wasn’t the official image of Soviet Russia that of men and women who were in no way helpless–men and women who, with hammers and sickles, worked to create their new world, with the confidence of believing there was no power greater than their power? No wonder that this production, in which people were utterly helpless, had been banned.
But the ban was lifted on the play, and a year later Lubimov was back in Moscow, presumably wearing the jacket he had left on the chair. He reconstructed his production of Boris Godunov, then, in 1989, put on Mozhayev’s Still Alive, which had been banned since 1969 and was for Lubimov a statement of his freedom to put on plays of his choice. And with such freedom as he now has, I am told by friends in Moscow that his theatre has lost its impact.
It did have its impact, however, and no doubt his ego was a necessary component of that force. Ironically, though, the greatest impact Lubimov was capable of came from his ability to transcend his ego in directing plays as an expression of his religious faith. That an artist should bring his religious faith to bear on a work of art in such a powerful way is a revelation; it is, I think, the stuff of revolution. This is dangerous–very dangerous–and could utterly destroy the work by imposing upon it, as was imposed on all of Russia, a doctrine of belief. But the productions I saw could not have risen to the heights they did without Lubimov risking the danger. No one has demonstrated to me more clearly the difference between mere commercial entertainment and spiritual enlightenment in the world of the arts, and made me more aware of our need, in our darkness, for such enlightenment.