Alexander Puskin’s great verse novel ‘Eugene Onegin’ has enjoyed blockbuster success as an opera and a ballet. But it’s never been a straight play – presumably because of the question of what to do with Pushkin’s richly detailed rhymes if you shove them on stage.
It’s taken the best part of 200 years for somebody – in this case maverick director Rimas Tuminas, head of Moscow’s revered Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre – to come to the brilliant conclusion that the best thing to do with the verse is to leave it alone.
The text to his ‘Onegin’ is Pushkin’s – or for the surtitles, a rhyming English translation. It’s the action that is radical: Tuminas has denaturalised the setting, turning it into a dreamy, stylised sprawl, with a Narrator (Vladimir Simonov) and two Onegins: Victor Dobronravov’s hotblooded young man, burning with self-regard, and Sergey Makovetskiy’s soulful older version, bitterly aware he made the mistake of his life when he rebuffed sweetheart Tatyana, thinking she was too provincial for the great man he was surely going to become.
Eugeniya Kregzhde’s Tatyana is undoubtedly the star of the show: she goes on no less of a journey than Onegin, but it all falls to Kregzhde. She is supernaturally expressive, almost transcending the need for translation – buzzing with girlish, guileless energy that later cools into a heartbreaking pragmatism.
If you’re a bit daunted by the three-hour-15-minute running time… well in all honesty, you’re within your rights. Tuminas’s staging is full of dreamily inventive set-pieces, but maybe too full. The story reaches a charged climax when Tatyana rejects Onegin. But novels have a different pace to plays, and there’s still some way to go, with Tuminas’s relentless imagination slowing the pace further – a nifty, original, entirely extraneous physical scene where the train to Moscow breaks down and the train guard has a fight with a mischievous rabbit would be fine anywhere in the first couple of hours but feels deeply indulgent three hours in.
Still, this is unapologetically monolithic European director’s theatre, and if it doesn’t conform to our ideas of restraint and neatness, it packs enough visual and emotional punch to compensate.
The reviewer saw a December 2014 performance in Moscow