Legendary Leopolitans No. 3: Extraordinary actor Bohdan Stupka
On stage and on the nation’s screens Bohdan Stupka has displayed the courage of Genghis Khan, the wit of Goethe’s Faust and the leadership of legendary Ukrainian Cossack leader and namesake Bohdan Khmelnitskiy. Today he is simply known as the greatest living Ukrainian actor, and despite already being in the twilight years of an illustrious career, he remains very much a dominating presence throughout Ukrainian theatre and TV, appearing regularly in the historical roles for which he is best known and in the theatrical dramas which first aroused his flair for acting.
Bohdan Stupka was born in 1941 in rural Lviv region at a time when it was one of the epicenters of the colossal conflict between Hitler and Stalin which decided the fate of WWII. Despite this turbulent introduction to the affairs of man, Stupka seemed destined for a career in show business and the performing arts. He comes from a family where performing is part of tradition – Bohdan’s father was a singer with the choir of the Lviv Opera and Ballet
Theatre while his auntie and uncle were also prominent performers on the Lviv stage. Initially the young Bohdan showed few signs of his later acting prowess, but during his army service in the late 1950s did finally begin playing the drums in the local military orchestra, getting his first taste of performing before large audiences. Following military service the young Bohdan struggled to succeed as a student, losing a place at Lviv’s Polytechnical institute before taking up a correspondence course at Lviv State University. It was at this stage that his so far latent love of theatre first emerged – he signed up for an experimental theatre troupe at Lviv’s
prestigious Maria Zankovetska Theatre and took his first steps along the road to stage stardom. The Stupka magic was soon apparent to Lviv’s theatre directors and the young actor began to secure interesting roles in high profile performances. However, there were many hiccups along the way: During a 1960 performance at Moscow’s elite MHAT theatre (Moscow Art Theatre) he was almost blinded by an accident, while a decade later he found himself cast aside from a number of promising roles as his independence and intellectual curiosity made him appear an inappropriate role model for young Soviets. Nevertheless, by the time Stupka decided to make the move from Lviv theatre to the Ukrainian capital in 1978, his reputation was already assured and he was widely acknowledged as one of Ukraine’s finest stage actors. While at Lviv’s Zankovetska Theatre he had honed his craft under the guidance of Borys Tyahno, who was himself a student of the legendary Les Kurbas. This classical training was to bare fruit spectacularly in Kyiv as Stupka set up residence at the Ukrainian capital’s elegant and ornate Ivan Franko theatre.
Soviet cinema brings celebrity status
It was only a matter of time before Stupka was drawn into the coils of the massive Soviet cinema industry, but his first leading role was also almost his last: the 29 year old Stupka’s harrowing portrayal of a young Soviet Ukrainian who joins the anti-communist underground was widely praised for its realism at the time of the film’s initial release in the early 1970s but the powerful emotional impact of the film also attracted the wrath of the Kremlin authorities, who promptly banned the movie. Despite this setback there was little that could now hold the mbitious Stupka back. Inevitably, following the fuss made over his portrayal of a political enemy of the Soviet authorities, other roles began to pour in for the powerful new acting talent from Lviv.
The face of Ukrainian history
Over the years his unerring ability to demonstrate great pathos and to instill majesty into his acting has seen Stupka play a string of powerful historical figures, from Russian Tsarist ministers and Bolshevik leaders to Cossack chieftains and literary legends. He has been so consistently cast in the role of many of the most celebrated figures in Ukrainian history that an entire generation has grown up assuming that Stupka’s distinctive profile is a close approximation of the appearance of everyone from Khmelnitskiy and Mazepa to Taras Bulba. As a result Bohgan Stupka has become the physical embodiment of the Ukrainian past and has come to be seen as a living national treasure. There have been controversies along the way – Stupka’s 2007 decision to play Taras Bulba in a production which was cloaked in political associations was seen as a sign of his support for Viktor Yanukovych’s more fraternal approach to ties with Russia. At the time it was well known that President ushchenko himself had long planned to produce his own version of the Taras Bulba epic, making this rival roduction a direct challenge to the Yushchenko regime’s agenda of historical revisionism. Stupka was also one of the few high-profile Lviv figures to have remained relatively quiet during the 2004 pro-democracy Orange evolution. However, these historical debates and geopolitical arguments have not succeeded in tarnishing Stupka’s aura among the general population, to whom he remains the face of the country’s checkered past.
Throughout his career Stupka has won international plaudits – his celebrated portrayal of Tevje the Milkman in the Ivan Franko theatre’s adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof has played to sold out audiences in New York on two separate occasions, while his roles in Ukrainian-Russian and Ukrainian-Polish joint cinema productions have helped boost his profile within the region. In the past decade Stupka has also taken on a representative role, serving in government as Minister of Culture for a period around the turn of the millennium. During his tenure
in office Stupka was instrumental in providing much-needed funds for Ukraine’s once great but increasingly derelict cinema industry, and since leaving office he has been a vocal supporter of greater funding and government support for domestic kino. Such efforts are characteristic of a man who has dominated the Ukrainian stage for almost half a century and yet continues to strive for perfection and push his colleagues to the limit. As director of his beloved Ivan Franko theatre in Kyiv, Stupka remains as demanding today as he was when he first arrived as a relative unknown from cosmopolitan and politically suspect Lviv in the Soviet 1970s.