Review By Lisa Lanzi
Yevgeny Vakhtangov (13 February 1883 – 29 May 1922) was a Russian-Armenian actor and theatre director and friend and mentor of Michael Chekhov. He was greatly influenced by the theatrical experiments of Vsevolod Meyerhold and the more psychological techniques of his teachers, Konstantin Stanislavski and Leopold Sulerzhitsky. Vakhtangov created an actor’s studio and school and eventually, in 1926, the Theatre named in his honour was built and became home to the now world-famous Academy and Company. Theatre practitioners Lee Strasberg and Berthold Brecht have both hailed Vakhtangov for his dedication and perseverance in developing deeply intellectual, memorable and impactful work with Brecht identifying four defining pillars of Vakhtangov’s work and legacy : 1. Theatre is theatre; 2. The how, not the what, 3. More composition; 4. Greater inventiveness and imagination.
I was wary of experiencing this theatrical masterpiece as a live stream from Moscow - 7:00pm for us, 11:30am for the performers and Russian audience. However my fears were very quickly allayed as the quality of the vision and sound was impeccable. Rachel Healy and Neil Armfield, Artistic Directors of the Adelaide Festival, and their phenomenal team are to be congratulated for such an innovative solution to our Covid-affected arts and cultural landscape this year : Eugene Onegin is one of four live-streamed international events this Festival.
Acclaimed director Rimas Tuminas (idea, script and exquisite staging) has distilled Pushkin’s beloved verse-novel (composed in a particular rhyming stanza structure that came to be known as a 'Pushkin sonnet') into key moments from the story of Onegin and other characters with a focus on relationships and symbolism. Set in imperial Russia during the 1820s, the Pushkin’s literature has been described as historical treatise documenting St Petersburg societal norms, the Russian literary critic Belinsky (1811-1848) calling Eugene Onegin ‘an encyclopaedia of Russian life.’
Characters are depicted at different moments in time, past and present, so that the throughout the 3.5 hour production the audience observes the mature, introspective Onegin juxtaposed with his younger self as he sets in motion the doomed events as well as the older Lensky, as he may have developed if he had lived, observing himself in the past. Another character, the Retired Hussar (Artur Ivanov) serves as narrator with fierce physicality and in a role that often marked transitions from spoken to musical with a defining, startling and punchy movement in perfect synchrony with the orchestral blast of sound.
Physicality (both movement and stature/positioning) is a seamless and sublime feature of this production. The setting is part dismal ballet studio, part gentleman’s study with a central area that shifts from snowstorm to bedroom to celebration and more. The rear of the stage is covered by a dull, distorted mirror showing a sinister reflection of the action and much use is made of props which the characters shift and interact with like an extension of their inner state : Tatyana (a spellbinding Olga Lerman) drags, lifts and lies upon a bench seat in an anguished scene. The chorus of ‘dancers’ in neutral, slightly grimy white shifts from the initial ballet class opening all speak, sing and move with eloquence and power as they morph into the roles of friends, relatives and party-goers throughout. A piano accordion is at first a constant presence strapped to Olga’s chest (is also played by Maria Volkova) seems to accord with her light-heartedness. All the performers move with assurance and strength which compliments their astonishing diction and vocal power, and surely stems from the impeccable training they have undergone.
The dialogue is in Russian (and some French) with subtitles in English. The language is rich and musical and the actors, uttering very long lines of the original Pushkin text, are simply enthralling by virtue of their focus, intention, characterization and presence. Lerman as Tatyana, Ivanov as the Retired Hussar and Yury Shlykov as The Prince (Tatyana’s eventual spouse) in particular were actors with spell - it was difficult to shift your eyes from them whether speaking or silent.
Tuminas has taken a different and very creative approach to Eugene Onegin which has been represented in opera, ballet and film many times. The magnificently successful melding of language, song, music (composer Faustas Latenas) and movement (choreographer Anzelika Cholina) with the imposing set and lighting design situates this production as a landmark theatrical work that I feel privileged to have seen.
“So meanwhile, friends, enjoy your blessing: This fragile life that hurries so!” Alexander Pushkin, from Eugene Onegin.