Pushkin’s verse novel is given a rare and skilfully conceived theatrical treatment
Eugeniya Kregzhde, left, as Tatyana in ‘Eugene Onegin’
Eugene Onegin is familiar enough as an opera or ballet (Louise Levene recently reviewed the of it for the FT) but this is the first theatrical production of Pushkin’s verse novel that I have ever encountered. Rimas Tuminas and his company from the Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia give the version an often explicitly balletic air.
This is by way of solution to the twin problems posed by the task of bringing Pushkin’s work to the dramatic stage (here performed in Russian with English surtitles). First, it has little dialogue as such: a number of hefty speeches as Onegin repeatedly squanders his chances for a meaningful or satisfying life, but few conventional verbal exchanges. Yet it is simply impossible to escape the words: their rhyme, their metre, everything taking place in those 14-line Pushkinian
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How to foreground and sidestep the words simultaneously? Tuminas introduces narrators, older versions of Onegin (played on the press night by Sergei Makovetskiy, although actors alternate in most roles) and his friend Lensky (Oleg Makarov in a role which is a bit of a liberty, as Lensky dies in a duel before he gets that old). These figures take the lion’s share of the exposition and the authorial musings on life, love and the Russian spirit. During such sequences, the stage is often arranged in simple tableaux. Action comes elsewhere, in a number of almost or entirely wordless set-pieces in which the visuals do the talking.
Some of these scenes are surreal, such as the dream of Onegin’s young neighbour Tatyana (a luminous Eugeniya Kregzhde) when infatuated with him, or a bizarre bunny-hunt (an episode that comes from Pushkin’s life rather than the poem). Some are stylised near-naturalism, like that duel provoked by Onegin’s foolish arrogance, in which he kills his best friend. Some are gleefully satirical, such as an ineffably dreary name-day party for Tatyana, which parodies St Petersburg society balls. What Tuminas’s production has in common with Pushkin’s original is that after a while one moves beyond even such exuberantly ostentatious form and simply appreciates the content.