Experimental director of the Russian stage pushed boundaries

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 Yuri Lyubimov, a Russian stage director whose adventurous productions led to his exile but who later returned in triumph and remained a mainstay of Russian theatre for more than 20 years, died on Sunday in Moscow. He was 97.

His wife, Katalin, confirmed his death to the news agency Tass.

The Taganka Theatre in Moscow, which he founded in 1964, was known for breaking rules. Its flashy, fast-moving productions included song, dance, poetry and provocation.

Actors spoke directly to the audience, sometimes even when the script did not call for it. Singer, songwriter and actor Vladimir Vysotsky, who joined the theatre shortly after it was established, shocked traditionalists by strumming a guitar while playing Hamlet. The great American playwright Arthur Miller said the Taganka restored his faith in theatre.

Lyubimov staged adaptations of John Reed's 10 Days That Shook The World about the Bolshevik Revolution and dozens of works of literature that did not obviously lend themselves to a theatrical treatment. He also staged plays that were implicitly, and sometimes not so implicitly, critical of the Soviet system.

Some of his productions were banned outright; others had to be rewritten to remove what the authorities considered subversive content; others were merely criticised from on high.

In 1977, for example, the Ministry of Culture approved his adaptation of The Master And Margarita, an underground novel by Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov that draws parallels between the crucifixion of Jesus and the persecution of a Soviet writer.

But once the production was a success, the Communist Party newspaper Pravda attacked it for its "distortion of historical perspective", faulting it for, among other things, not making clear that the story was set in Stalin's time and not the present. (The Master And Margarita nonetheless remained a staple of the theatre's repertory.)

Audiences flocked to the Taganka, which came to be seen as the epicentre of experimental theatre in Russia. The theatre became more popular after Vysotsky, whose politically charged ballads had earned him a devoted following, joined the troupe. Shielded from harsher action in part by that popularity and in part by the fact that some high-ranking Communist officials admired his work, Lyubimov tried to take government interference with a shrug.

"The theatre, after all, is not mine," he said in a 1976 interview with The New York Times. "The theatre belongs to the state."

The state finally lost patience with Lyubimov in 1984, after he went to London to stage a version of Crime And Punishment and openly criticised the Soviet leadership in newspaper interviews. He was stripped of his citizenship, his apartment was seized and he was removed from his post at the Taganka.

He spent five years in exile, navigating the globe as a theatre and opera director, to much acclaim.

In 1988, in the era of glasnost preceding the end of the Soviet Union, Lyubimov was invited back to Moscow to help stage a production of Boris Godunov. The next year, he was officially welcomed home, given back his citizenship and restored to his post at the Taganka.

He remained there until he abruptly resigned during a tour of the Czech Republic in 2011, complaining that his actors cared more about money than art when they refused to participate in a rehearsal until they were paid. But he continued to direct elsewhere and his adaptation of the Dostoyevsky novel The Possessed was presented as part of a celebration of his 95th birthday.

Born on Sept 30, 1917, just weeks before the Russian Revolution, in Yaroslavl, along the Volga River between Moscow and St Petersburg, Yuri Petrovich Lyubimov grew up loving the arts thanks to his mother, a music teacher. His parents, intellectuals descended from peasants, were imprisoned briefly during Stalin's reign. He fell in love with theatre as a teenager and studied acting and directing before being drafted into the Soviet army in 1941.

After the war he joined the Vakhtangov Theatre in Moscow as an actor. He made his directing debut in 1959 and four years later first drew the attention of both the public and the authorities with a production of Bertolt Brecht's The Good Person Of Szechwan, about a prostitute protected by the gods, which established Lyubimov as a hero of the Soviet intelligentsia.

In 1983, he married Hungarian theatre critic Katalin Koncz. Besides his wife, survivors include a son, Peter, and several grandchildren.

Lyubimov rarely worked outside Russia after his return, although his troupe continued to tour the world without him. In 2002, the Taganka celebrated his 85th birthday on the opening night of his new adaptation of Goethe's Faust.

"I give the maximum of myself and I try to do whatever I can," he told The Times in 1986. "I cannot say more than what Gogol said: 'Do your job as if it were an order from God'."

 
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