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February 2015

Michael Pennington, actor, director and cofounder of the English Shakespeare Company, applauds this theatrical production of Pushkin’s classic novel in verse.

Most of the London audience for the  Vakhtangov Theatre’s Eugene Onegin will be used to seeing Alexander Pushkin’s masterpiece through one smoky mirror or another - traditionally that of Tchaikovsky’s great opera, the sublimity of whose music, for all that it is married to much of Pushkin’s own text, clouds the extraordinary original.

Written between 1825 and 1832 (five years before Pushkin’s own Lensky-like death in a duel, fatuously defending his wife’s dubious fidelity). Eugene Onegin is one of Pushkin’s many invitations to opera composers, also among which are Boris Godunov and The Queen of Spades. The original ‘verse novel’ is a sequence of 389 sonnets in Pushkin’s specially designed rhyme scheme, consistent throughout, combining couplets and alternating and ‘enclosing’ rhymes (a/b/b/a). As if that wasn’t enough, certain lines in each verse always have a ‘feminine’ endings (final syllable unstressed) and others ‘masculine’ (stressed). It’s as if he was making it as hard as possible for himself. Miraculously, within these rigid constraints, the poem dances with light and spontaneity, lyricism, wit and beauty.

At its centre is the sometimes hilarious portrait of the ‘superfluous man’, Onegin himself, bored in both country and town: a roué, gourmet and fop who arrives late at the ballet so that he can be seen standing in the stalls examining the women in the boxes through his lorgnette; a man who on hearing visitors arriving at the front of his house escapes out the back and rides away; somebody so overcome with ennui and lassitude that, were he in a Tchaikovsky opera, would hardly work up the energy to sing. The poet himself weaves through the poem, breaking off every so often to discuss with the reader how he thinks it’s going, and not above stopping on the edge of various narrative cliffs to declare that he’s tired (after all, he’s nearly thirty) and needs a rest before continuing - a rest that, as the poem was published in serial form, would sometimes last for months or years. It’s a brilliant means of keeping him in touch with his audience.

When Rimas Tuminas presented his Vakhtangov Uncle Vanya to London in 2012, he set the Chekhovian cat among the pigeons. Gestural, playful, nervy, but full of indelible images, it’s interventions offending many orthadox Chekhovians by largely abandoning the detailed realism of Stanislavsky for another great Russian style - the expressionism of Stanislavsky’s disciples Meyerhold, Yaktangov and, later, Yuri Lyubimov. However, Chekhov would have loved it - the Chekhov who used to say that all he wanted to do was to show audiences how stupidly they lived, and whose roots were in the mocking comedy of vaudeville. Now Tuminas has produced a sparkling version of Eugene Onegin, currently touring the world. What he needs for his work - and has certainly developed - is a crack team of actors. This is a superb group, showing Russian acting at its best, simultaneously precise and dangerous, reckless and delicate. It’s a chance to see one of Russia’s great stories in the hands of a brilliant interpreter and a terrific ensemble.

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