Chekhov and Lyubimov at the Vigszinhaz, Budapest, Hungary

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The Vígszínház (pronounced more or less Veeg-seen-hahs) in Budapest is quite an extraordinary theater. The only thing I could compare to it in Moscow is the Bolshoi. But this historically was a “lowly” comedy theater, created in 1896, to counteract the conservatism of the National Theater. So this place was an upstart, a rebel, a renegade. Hardly looks like one by today’s standards. And when you get inside it only gets more opulent. According to the Geocaching website, “The Vígszínház is one of the finest examples of theatre buildings designed by [Ferdinand] Fellner and [Hermann] Helmer, whose 19th century ‘new-standard theatres’ can be found scattered across central Europe.” I attended the Vig, as it is called colloquially, one night last week to see a performance of Nikolai Gogol’s classic comedy The Inspector General. I was intrigued to see, when I arrived, a huge banner advertising the theater’s dramatization of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita. So the Russian connection at this theater remains strong. You see, it was this very theater that introduced Anton Chekhov to Hungarian audiences. My half-hearted, though sincere, efforts to determine exactly which Chekhov play was produced here and when remain in vain. Numerous websites, including the theater’s own, proudly proclaim that Chekhov was produced here “from the very beginning,” or that the “first Chekhov offered in Hungary was staged here,” but nobody says which of the plays it was. A letter to the theater’s literary department has gone unanswered as of yet. And I used to have a book that listed all of the Chekhov productions around the world in the early years, but that book is not with me in Moscow. So I remain in the dark and I regrettably leave you there too. If anybody knows the first Chekhov play to be performed at the Vig, do inform me, please. I’ll add that information here.

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But, as I say, this playhouse has a long and rich connection to Russian culture that goes far beyond Chekhov. Among others, the Boris Eifman Ballet has played here. But one of the most memorable Russian connections to this day remains Yury Lyubimov’s production of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. This, in fact, was the first of several interpretations Lyubimov would do of this seminal literary work. Although there exists some alternate information, Lyubimov’s own pages on the Taganka Theater site list the premiere of this show as having taken place Jan. 26, 1978. It preceded his famous Moscow production by just over a year (that production opened on Feb. 12, 1979). (Birgit Beumers in her book, Yury Lyubimov at the Taganka Theatre, 1964-1994 , puts the Budapest premiere date as June 1978, although I am inclined to go with the information provided by the Taganka.) The Taganka website also provides a full program of the production at the Vig. Lyubimov would return to Crime and Punishment in 1983 at the Lyric Hammersmith in London; the Academy Theater in Vienna in 1984; and Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. in 1987. This was not the only time that Lyubimov would stage a show abroad first and then follow with a production in Moscow. He did the same with Dostoevsky’s novel A Raw Youth, which he first directed in Finland in 1991 and then mounted at the Taganka in 1996.
Budapest was an important city for Lyubimov. He met the woman who would become his last wife while rehearsing Crime and Punishment at the Vig. Katalin Koncz was a journalist who interviewed Lyubimov and they ended up marrying, remaining together from 1978 until Lyubimov’s death in 2014. Lyubimov taught  for several years in Budapest at the theater academy. In fact, rounding out the Lyubimov-Vígszínház connection, the current artistic director here is Enikő Eszenyi, a director and actress who studied under Lyubimov at the Hungarian academy.

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