Can acting be seen as a form of mediation
with a different time and place?
When rehearsing “Eugene Onegin”, Yuri Lyubimov noted that the original text of the novel in verse has nothing in common with the opera libretto: Pushkin was ironical in his text, but the libretto lacked exactly this important feature[i]. That is why the focus of Lyubimov’s staging rests upon the manner of reciting the original text. Pushkin’s famous iambs had to wait for about 200 years until Lyubimov’s theatrical challenge made visible the tempo-rhythm as the main characteristic of the “Onegin stanza” through the variety of ways and the manner of its recitation. In turn, this allows us to speak about acting as a form of mediation with a different time and place. The acting methods used in Lyubimov’s staging proved well-suited to the performance of the 200-year-old classical text, especially in the new century: it seems doubtful that the text of the most read Russian classical writer would have been allowed to be set to an African rhythm, as a rap or as chastushka (traditional Russian short rhymed folk poem), for instance, in the time of Soviet censorship. However, Lyubimov used those and other musical rhythms in his performance. What was impossible to present within the frame of strict “academic” mediation concept in the Soviet time, became accessible on the very threshold of the 21st century (“academic” in the sense of belonging to the school curriculum; thus, most theatrical adaptations of “Onegin” had the adolescent audience as their target group and focused on the plot, leaving the important feature of the “Pushkin sonnet” beyond the mediating possibilities).
The performance was opened with the first phrase from Onegin’s Letter to Tatyana and was interrupted in the middle, so that the audience was warned in advance of the provocative style of the performance. “I foresee it all: you will be hurt…” would be the literal translation of the original sentence (while the official poetical translation is: I know it all: my secret ache // will anger you in its confession […][ii]).
The set was designed as a double row of showcases separated with the curtains from where the actors in high hats recited their texts. As acting techniques they mainly used the text, their manner of reciting the text, their bodies, and from time to time musical episodes, costumes, and set elements. From the opening scene it was apparent that the stylistic opportunities of the original text would be the main source of creativity for performers’ embodiment of their character. So for instance, the medium of the interrupted opening phrase gave a new meaning to the sentence well-known to every Russian from their school days.
The first stanza of Pushkin’s masterpiece is a kind of visiting card of the entire novel, so that the audience pays special attention to it. At the Taganka Theatre the stanza was introduced through the audio recording of the famous Soviet actor Innokenty Smoktunovsky. After the recorded “My uncle – high ideals inspire him …” read by Smoktunovsky, the curtain of the central showcase on stage opened and two male actors entered in shirts labelled with I ♥ Pushkin, Pushkin is our all and in high hats continued the stanza, dancing and singing it as rap and accompanying its rhythm on guitar:
”My uncle – high ideals inspire him;
but when past joking he fell sick,
he really forced one to admire him –
and never played a shrewder trick.
Let others learn from his example!
But God, how deadly dull to sample
sickroom attendance night and day
and never stir a foot away!
And the sly baseness, fit to throttle,
of entertaining the half-dead:
one smooths the pillows down in bed,
and glumly serves the medicine bottle,
and sighs, and asks oneself all through:
“When will the devil come for you?”[iii]
Unusual tempo-rhythmic interpretation of the first stanza shocked the audience who, over many decades, had become accustomed to the “lyrical” way of recitation. For adolescent viewers it was a rather more familiar manner of text presentation
A rapid contrast to rap rhythms succeeded this when the second stanza was recited in an artificially monotonous way when the vocals were doubly prolonged, such as by singing or yawning:
Friends of my Ruslan and Lyudmila,
without preliminary feeler
let me acquaint you on the nail
with this the hero of my tale:
Onegin, my good friend, was littered
and bred upon the Neva's brink,
where you were born as well, I think,
reader, or where you've shone and glittered!
There once I too strolled back and forth:
but I'm allergic to the North…[iv]