Since coming to power in 2000, Vladimir Putin has revelled in cultivating the tough-guy look, posing shirtless and catching fish, driving Formula 1 cars and showing off his judo skills.
But in the last few weeks, the former KGB agent’s image has been massaged in quite a different way in a sell-out satirical play titled “BerlusPutin”, adapted from Italian work “L’anomalo bicefalo” (the Two-Headed Anomaly) by Nobel prize-winning writer Dario Fo.
The play examines what might happen if half of former Italian Prime Minister’s brain were transplanted into Putin’s head, following Berlusconi’s “death” from a heart attack.
The absurd premise of the play has allowed the producers to insert just about any Putin-inspired conspiracy theory and hearsay into the plot.
“We’re not drawing his psychological profile,” said Serguei Epishev, the actor playing Putin. “Our play is telling a story based on his public declarations, news and rumours.”
The show incorporates accusations of corruption directed at Putin’s entourage, which have grown considerably since his first term as President began in 2000, along with allegations of fraud in Russia’s last round of elections.
The image of “Botox” - as his detractors have nicknamed Putin due to his rejuvenating facial injections - also takes a beating in his final incarnation as he morphs into Dobby, the wrinkled elf in the Harry Potter series.
His private life is not spared in the play. Putin, who keeps his personal life closely guarded, sends his wife Ludmila to an Orthodox convent (again a subject borrowed from persistent rumours), and fantasises about gymnast Alina Kabaeva, with whom (rumour also has it) he has had an affair.
Nor does the play spare Dmitri Medvedev, the ex-prime minister and current president who is widely tipped to take back his former post.
Baptised the “little iPhone” for his enthusiasm for modern technology, he plays the role of docile marionette to his master Putin.
The show, being played at Moscow’s Teatr.doc – a venue known for mixing theatre and politics – has delighted audiences both as a comedy and also as a political commentary.
“The main idea was to show our political position after 20 years of silence and passivity,” said director Varvara Faer. “People who come here are generally fed up with the way the government has been humiliating them."
“Some say that this country isn’t ready for democracy, but that’s simply not true.”
Serguei Epichev is less forthright about the play’s political significance.
“We’re not drawing his psychological profile,” he repeats. “We are just inspired by the things he has said, and the things people say about him, in order to parody him as a character.
“Nevertheless it is interesting to play this kind of role in Russia. Personally, I am not at all happy with the political situation here.”
The play has been running since mid-February and is sold out until April.
The success does not seem to have upset the government, however.
But Faer, who was not hindered in any other way while putting on the show, found herself unable to get the advertising posters printed: “The printers I approached refuse to have anything to do with it because the posters showed Vladimir Putin’s face.”