March 07, 2021

Agonising trajectory of live-streamed drama

Adelaide Festival

After Euripides
Written and directed by Simon Stone
Internationaal Theater Amsterdam.
Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide.
Sir Robert Helpmann Theatre, Mount Gambier.
March 4. Duration : 1 hr 20 mins.

Eugene Onegin
Selected chapters from the novel in verse
by Alexander Pushkin.
Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia.
Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide
March 5. Duration 3 hrs 20 mins, including interval.

Since inception the Adelaide Festival has been celebrated for its international program. But like so much else, COVID-19 has scuppered that. Instead, in 2021 – the year of Zoom and gloom – the festival is showcasing Live From Europe, a real-time, one performance only, streaming program including pianist, Igor Levit, dance from Sadler’s Wells, and two theatre productions – Medea and Eugene Onegin.

Australian director, Simon Stone’s Medea, first performed in 2014, is the first of five productions he has created for Internationaal Theater Amsterdam, whose celebrated director, Ivo van Hove has captured festival audiences with Roman Tragedies and Kings of War.

Cleverly fusing Euripides’ Medea with details borrowed from the case of Debora Green, an oncologist who poisoned her husband and incinerated two of her children in a house fire, Stone’s compelling and deftly imagined version features Anna (Marieke Heebink), a senior research scientist in pharmaceuticals who has not only elevated her husband, Lucas (Aus Greidanus Jr.) in his career, but raised their two children. Now he wants to leave her to marry the daughter of the company’s CEO. It is a neat re-setting of the original Medea and follows Euripides’ agonising trajectory.

Everything about this production is splendid. Bob Cousins’ enveloping scenography – bone white walls, searchingly lit by Bernie van Velzen – provides screens for the confronting live video close-ups of the actors, as well as open space for poignant tableaux of grief and vehemence and penitential ash. Stefan Gregory’s soundscape, especially the ominous, chiming ambient beats in the final scenes, completes the effect.

The performances are galvanising – Greidanus, as the opportunistic Lucas, Titus Theunissen and Sonny van Utterren, as the doomed boys making home videos of the family ructions, and Heebeck as Anna, with her smiling fury, justifiable outrage, deep sadness and psychopathic vengeance. Stone has brilliantly delivered Medea from Amsterdam to our virtual world and, as Aristotle promised, she brings pity and fear.

The Vakhtangov Theatre production of the verse novel Eugene Onegin was conceived, scripted and staged by Rimas Tuminas, who describes the project as an exploration of Pushkin’s main theme : the story of Tatyana, a young country girl’s love for the dandyish, cosmopole Onegin. He likens his production to the fragments of Tatyana’s love letter, which our haughty hero frames and puts on his wall.

But this deconstruction of the original narrative into a three hour series of often spectacular, beautifully lit – but rarely moving – set pieces, disperses the dramatic impact. Tuminas, with a cast of forty, including a dancing chorus of fourteen, overloads the experience with Faustus Latenas’s omnipresent musical score, digressive scenes and seemingly extraneous characters such as the irascible narrator and the whimsical snow bunny.

There is also difficulty with the surtitled English text which is awkwardly phrased and jammed into contorted rhyming couplets, creating an unpoetic disconnect with the pleasing cadence of the original Russian and the excellent stylised performances, especially from the leads.

Sergey Makovetsky is impressive as Onegin the elder (Victor Dobronravov is his younger self). Vasily Simonov plays the doomed poet, Count Lensky and the staging of the scene of his death in a duel is a highlight. Oleg Makarov plays an imagined version of Lensky – if he had lived into middle age.

As Tatyana, Olga Lerman is the focal point of much of the production. It is a memorable performance and especially engaging in the later scenes when she is courted by the Prince while they eat treacle off a spoon ! When, finally, she speaks her mind to the belatedly regretful Onegin, the drama has a commanding stillness and intensity that is too often lacking in the hectic theatrics overall.

The live-feed logistics were achieved without a hitch and Adelaide shared this historic experience simultaneously with a Moscow audience. But we were also separated, because much of our Pushkin was lost in translation.

“Agonising trajectory of live-streamed drama”, The Australian, March 8, 2021, p.12. (In slightly-edited form)

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