EUGENE ONEGIN – Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia ★★★★★

In Films, International, Opinion, Plays, Reviews by Carole Woddis

★★★★★
On film, Barbican Cinema 2, London

For most art lovers, Eugene Onegin exists in Tchaikovsky’s opera, a huge favourite since its premiere in 1879. The original verse novel (serialised between 1825-32) though has remained fairly inaccessible to English-speaking audiences because of the difficulties of its translation.

But now Moscow’s Vakhtangov Theatre’s filmed version of a live performance of the play of the novel by its artistic director, Rimas Tuminas has arrived, if only for one screening at the Barbican. One hopes there will be more. For it is an overwhelming, dazzling experience, sweeping in scope, theatrically inventive in every moment, a tribute and a gloriously re-imagined monument to Pushkin, the father of Russian Literature.

Sometimes Russian theatre has arrived in London garlanded with praise only to turn out, in comparison with our puckish, modern glossy exteriors as dated and old-fashioned.

It’s true, even here in this wonder of wonders, there are a few declamatory moments, notably towards the end when the young heroine, Tatyana (the astonishingly luminous, beguiling Eugeniya Kregzhde) re-emerges from despair to capture the heart of the much older suitor who, in turn, rhapsodises, a little stiffly, to the by now, heart-broken Onegin on the joys of finding love again in old age.

Tuminas, however, is one in a million. Whilst utterly true to Pushkin’s original text, he confides, in the filmed introduction to the production, that he sees Eugene Onegin as really being `about Tatyana’. `We searched too for Eugene. But he is lost although pride and honour are in him, a symbol of the Russian spirit.’

Tuminas’s production therefore throws Tatyana’s state of mind – even when sitting unobtrusively at the side of the stage – into the sharpest focus amongst the vivid, constantly moving stage pictures mixing past and present in swirling stagecraft that sometimes borders on pantomime but often achieves stunning pathos with merely a glance – Tatyana’s father meeting sudden death by simply being walked off stage. The look in his eyes, so little – bewilderment, a glassy numbness – yet strikes right to the heart.

© Dmitriy-Dubinskiy, Eugenia Kregzhde (Tatyana Larina) and other marital `angels’ flying…life should be about imagination and `flying’ as Liudmila Maksakova’s crusty ballet mistress notes towards the end…

This is perhaps one of the advantages of filmed performance – the ability to capture the whites of the eyes and the tiniest gesture. Stage Russia’s filming of the Vakhtangov, too, surpasses most of what we normally see here in filmed live performances by quite a margin.

This is after all, high Romanticism. But Tuminas’s handsome production uses a mainly bare stage, inhabited by moving figures who sing, dance (balletic style). accompanied by Faustas Latenas’s hauntingly melancholic, wistful score drawing on a range of sources from Russian folk to string quartets, piano and balalaika to cover the story of the older Onegin (a gravel-voiced, sad –eyed, world weary Sergey Makovetskiy) looking back on the moment of meeting Tatyana and his cruel rejection of her by his younger self  (Victor Dobronravov).

Inevitably, for some of us, the narrative carries echoes of Ibsen’s much later The Wild Duck (of innocence crushed) as also Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in Tatyana’s adolescent romantic dreams gleaned from too much reading.

Tuminas’s staging also sometimes recalls elements of Pina Bausch in its physicality and inbuilt wry, sardonic commentary. Also Simon McBurney’s revelatory production of Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity with Berlin’s Schaubuhne’s Theatre.

© Dmitriy-Dubinskiy, after the duel between Onegin and Lenskiy that kills Lenskiy…

At three and a half hours in length (with a 15 minute intermission), the time flies by, each moment kept alive by its remarkable company (special mention for a superb Artur Ivanov as a drunken quasi-Pushkin alter-ego and Liudmila Maksakova as a martinet ballet teacher and Tatyana’s Romeo and Juliet type nanny).

It’s a portrait of rural Russia that stings with its insights into the vagaries of the human heart and encapsulation of the Russian spirit.

Everything is moveable in Tuminas’s interpretation – memory, emotions, dreams, fate – except for virtue. Virtue, goodness remain, undaunted, unquenchable – a very Dostoevskian ideal.

If it comes your way again (it was here, on stage at the Barbican, in 2015), please don’t fail to see it.

British theatre is rightly lauded for its new writing and experimentalism. But the Vakhtangov’s Eugene Onegin is proof that there are other worlds, other aesthetics and performers alive in western culture that freshen the soul and parts that our own cherished theatre traditions cannot reach.

Magnificent

Eugene Onegin
By Alexander Pushkin
Translated by Kat Soloviev.
Performed in Russian with English surtitles

Cast: (partial)
Eugene Onegin (Older): Sergey Makovetskiy
Eugene Onegin (Younger): Victor Dobronravov
Retired Hussar: Artur Ivanov
Vladimir Lensky (Older): Vasily Simonov
Vladimir Lensky (Younger): Oleg Makarov
Tatyana Larina: Eugeniya Kregzhde
Olga Larina: Natalia Vinokurova
“Tatyana’s Dream”: Irina Kupchenko
Nanny, Dancing Master: Liudmila Maksakova

Created and Directed by Rimas Tuminas
Set Design: Adomas Jacovskis
Costumes: Mariya Danilova
Music: Faustas Latenas
Choreographer: Angelica Cholina
Musical director:Tatiana Agaeva
Lighting Designer: Maya Shavdatuashv

Presented by Stage Russia: www.stagerussia.com, part of Barbican Afternoon Arts Series.

See also upcoming The Cherry Orchard (Oct 12) by the Moscow Art Theatre and Anna Karenina (Nov 16) by the Vakhtangov

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Carole Woddis on Twitter
Carole Woddis
Carole Woddis has been a theatre journalist and critic for over 30 years. She was London reviewer and feature writer for Glasgow’s The Herald for 12 years and for many other newspapers and magazines. She now review for websites including The Arts Desk, Reviews Gate and London Grip and blogs independently at woddisreviews.org.uk. Carole is also the author of: The Bloomsbury Theatre Guide with Trevor T Griffiths; a collection of interviews with actresses, Sheer Bloody Magic (Virago), and Faber & Faber’s Pocket Guide to 20th Century Drama with Stephen Unwin. For ten years, she was a Visiting Tutor in Journalism at Goldsmiths College and for three years with City University. Earlier in her career, she worked with the RSC, National Theatre, Round House and Royal Ballet as a publicist and as an administrator for other theatre and dance organisations.
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Carole Woddis on Twitter
Carole Woddis
Carole Woddis has been a theatre journalist and critic for over 30 years. She was London reviewer and feature writer for Glasgow’s The Herald for 12 years and for many other newspapers and magazines. She now review for websites including The Arts Desk, Reviews Gate and London Grip and blogs independently at woddisreviews.org.uk. Carole is also the author of: The Bloomsbury Theatre Guide with Trevor T Griffiths; a collection of interviews with actresses, Sheer Bloody Magic (Virago), and Faber & Faber’s Pocket Guide to 20th Century Drama with Stephen Unwin. For ten years, she was a Visiting Tutor in Journalism at Goldsmiths College and for three years with City University. Earlier in her career, she worked with the RSC, National Theatre, Round House and Royal Ballet as a publicist and as an administrator for other theatre and dance organisations.