On a cold Moscow winter morning in 1977, a group of theater officials were tearing down posters advertising a premiere outside the Moscow Art Theater.
Then, they hurried across the city, painting over the words “To the anniversary of the formation of the Soviet Union,” leaving only the name of the play visible.
Months earlier, Roman Viktyuk, one of the most famous theater directors in Russia and Ukraine, had been asked to put on a show to celebrate the important anniversary at the Soviet Union’s main theater.
Viktyuk proposed “Stolen Happiness” by the Ukrainian writer Ivan Franko.
The posters for the play ended up carrying a phrase that could have led to serious trouble for theater managers: “To the anniversary of the formation of the Soviet Union – Stolen Happiness.”
“Theater officials had to wipe out any mention of the motherland or they would have been shot,” recalls Viktyuk in an interview.
Ukraine-born Viktyuk, 75, has staged around 200 shows in his half-century career, but became known for not compromising his art in order to chase favor and awards from the authorities, as many Soviet directors and writers did.
“I never staged anything for the Soviet regime and at the same time I was directing plays in all main Soviet theaters,” he says. “All I had to do is to smile and remember that they are all stupid.”
“My actors never played women. They were playing evil,” Viktyuk said.
“There were two plays Viktyuk staged on different anniversaries of the Soviet Union and both times they were not praising the system but brought out some conflict or dialogue.
He has never staged anything to popularize the Soviet Union,” recalls 54-year-old Ukrainian theater director Serhiy Proskurnya.
According to Viktyuk, he got away with this by playing the role of a Ukrainian fool from a village.
Switching from Russian to Ukrainian and back again, he explains that he never competed for the honors handed out by regime – titles, cars and apartments – and so had no need to flatter the state’s leaders.
“They thought I was an idiot not to run for titles and gifts, so they stopped paying attention to me. This image let me silently do whatever I wanted,” he smiles.
Born 75 years ago in a family of poor Lviv teachers, Viktyuk was staging small plays and performing at a local school theater from an early age. On turning 15, he put all his belongings in a small suitcase and went to conquer Moscow’s Russian University of Theater Arts GITIS.
Now, 60 years later, he enjoys the status of GITIS professor and welcomes his students to his own Moscow theater, which he has run for 20 years.
Viktyuk gained a reputation as a notorious and scandalous stage director. The biggest fuss came in 1988 when he put on the play “Maids” based on the French novel by Jean Genet.
Back then, the Soviet audience was shocked to see four men playing women’s roles; since then rumors that Viktyuk’s theater is gay continue to follow his troupe.
Twenty-three years later, Viktyuk wants to finally put a stop to all rumors. “My actors never played women. They were playing evil,” he says.
Nowadays his plays are still the same – challenging, multilayered, with lots of different meanings that are not seen at first glance.
Giving an interview before a performance of Master and Margarita in Kyiv, based on the famous play by Mikhail Bulgakov, he talks with noticeable satisfaction about the row of papier-mache busts of Soviet leaders on stage, which marks the present powerlessness of former tyrants.
Viktyuk, a small, fair-haired man, is himself known for wielding dictatorial powers over his actors. He often turns the air blue during rehearsals.
“If you don’t perceive what he wants, Viktyuk can use hard, even destructive methods to get his point of view across. Sometimes he drives the actor almost unconsciousness with any method available just to get him in the needed condition,” says Dmitry Bozin, the leading actor at Viktyuk’s theater.
The result of this work can be seen on the stage.
His actors jump on stilts, climb high constructions and hang from them as they deliver their lines. Viktyuk is a master of using discrete symbols: the theatergoer needs to pay attention to changes in color, voice, music and costume that subtly hint at hidden meanings.
“He follows not only the plot, but also the inner life of every single actor – the words melody, moves, tricks,” says theater director Proskurnya.
In all his plays, he takes a fresh look at classic works. For example, in Master and Margarita, he presents the play through the eyes of a minor character who witnesses the interactions of all the main characters.
Viktyuk is something of a showman, famous for wearing glasses of all colors and shapes and bright or glittery outfits. Just like when he played the fool in Soviet times, he says he is using his appearance as a way to distract people from looking deeper at him.
He says he feels like a child.
“True movie or stage directors should always do their work like for the first time – knowing nothing but learning,” Viktyuk says.
It’s a process that is finally paying off for the evergreen director. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, he has started to receive awards – he is a Distinguished Artist of both Russia and Ukraine.
Kyiv Post staff writer Yuliya Raskevich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.