- Mask and Soul
At the end of June, scandal rocked the Moscow theatre world when a bitter dispute over wages and work ethics erupted between the legendary Russian director Yuri Lyubimov and the actors of the Taganka Theatre, which he had guided for nearly half a century. By the beginning of July it became clear that, despite repeated pleas from Russia’s Minister of Culture, the differences could not be reconciled. Lyubimov (now 94 years old) announced that at the end of the season he would be stepping down [End Page 275]as artistic director of the theatre he had raised to prominence with his daring productions during the 1960s and ’70s.
The final performance at the Taganka Theatre under Lyubimov was his most recent work, Mask and Soul, which premiered in April 2011. While the production was an often confusing jumble of texts and images intended as a totalizing critique of contemporary Russian society, Lyubimov’s own authority over the work (he not only directed the play, but constructed the text and oversaw the scenography), and the faith that his audiences placed in him as a result of his decades of work, provided a kind of gravity and prevented the production’s disparate elements from falling into chaos. The result was not entirely successful either artistically or politically, but in its ambition and occasional power Mask and Soulprovided a fitting (if still unfortunate) end to the five decades of collaboration between one of the century’s greatest theatre artists and his theatre.
Like a number of Lyubimov’s recent productions, Mask and Soul,called a “spectacle elegy” to Chekhov, was a part of the aging director’s reckoning with mainstays of the Russian canon. The script was crafted by Lyubimov from several of Chekhov’s early (pre-1886) short stories, letters, and memoirs. He also included texts from other writers, including Silver Age opera singer Fedor Chaliapin, whose memoirs are an important document of artistic life during the Revolution and gave the performance its title. These texts are not united by any readily apparent relationship; instead, the coherence of the work resulted from the connections that Lyubimov’s production created among them. Favoring an episodic approach, Lyubimov did not tie the texts together verbally, visually, or stylistically. The production instead alternated among relatively realistic stagings of Chekhov’s stories, direct addresses to the audience by the actor playing Chekhov (Andrei Smirennov), ritualized singing by a chorus assembled upstage, and sections composed almost entirely in movement. Lyubimov’s scenography mirrored this eclectic approach. Everyday props and set pieces were brought on and off for various scenes, but center stage was dominated by a massive bendable hand, crafted from a design by sculptor Ernst Neizvestnyi, who, like Lyubimov, was a controversial figure in the Soviet culture of the 1960s. The hand served as a powerful yet multivalent symbol, and as a prop upon which actors could sit, lean, and climb. The scenography was also largely filtered through Lyubimov’s person: a number of the costumes and props were his personal belongings, brought from his house for the production.
In his notes to the play, Lyubimov remarks that he was drawn to the idea of Chekhov as a doctor engaged in the diagnosis of diseases plaguing the social body, and the stories included in Mask and Soulare among the darkest that Chekhov ever wrote. In these stories, Chehkov sharply (perhaps cruelly) satirizes the corruption, cowardice, and self-importance of the late-imperial professional class. The scene based on the story “In Court,” for example, depicts the trial of a man accused of murdering his wife before a tribunal of individuals who are too bored with their jobs to pay much attention to the case. Concerned only with bringing the trial to sentencing as quickly as possible, the tribunal refuses to consider evidence of the man’s innocence. In another scene based on “The Mask,” a pair of men encounter a boorish drunk outside a masquerade. While the drunk remains in his mask the...