Recital of poems by Yevgeni Yevtushenko
Royal Festival Hall, London
22 September 1976
Words from Ian McKellen
I was working for the Royal Shakespeare Company at the time and Yevgeni stayed in my Stratford-upon-Avon apartment for a few days while we prepared his programme. The format was simple â€“ he would read his poems followed (or interspersed) with my reading of the English translation.
He was a perverse guest often cooking a breakfast of cabbage which he left boiling on the stove whilst he jogged along the River Avon. His English fiancÃ©e was in attendance. He liked lots of attention in private and public, most enjoying a group of admirers who would buy him vodkas in the Dirty Duck pub. They were rewarded by his sexy smile and a close-up of his ring which he claimed to have belonged to Rasputin. His glamour was compounded by his being about the only artistic export permitted out of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. At home he was very popular, reputedly giving poetry concerts in football stadia. Abroad, some Socialists found him a suspicious figure â€“ why was he allowed out of the USSR unless he was a KGB agent? Why did he support the regime which imprisoned other writers?
I liked his verses, their simplicity, their rhetoric and their gentle challenge to the Soviet authorities. I wish I could have read them in the original Russian. But I was half-sympathetic to the demonstration during our Festival Hall concert, when David Markham (Corin Redgraveâ€™s father-in-law) mounted the platform to engage the audience in anti-Soviet dialectic. Yevgeni didnâ€™t have enough English to understand, but his impresario for the UK tour stood in the wings saying â€œThis is great for publicity!â€ â€” Ian McKellen, June 2001