Pushkin comes to shove, then duelling pistols, in Onegin

Theatre | by Gregory Beatty

Persephone Theatre
March 21 to April 8

While perhaps not a first tier classic, Eugene Onegin has an aura about it. Famed Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky wrote an opera based on the tale in 1876, after all, and the poetic novel’s author, Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837), is revered in his homeland as the founder of modern Russian literature.

Talents like that are not to be trifled with. So when Vancouver musician Veda Hille and director/writer Amiel Gladstone considered creating an indie-rock adaptation a few years ago, they were wary. But after a test collaboration during a Berlin art residency where they wrote six songs in a few weeks, they decided to plunge ahead. Onegin premiered in Vancouver to rapturous reviews in 2016, and has since played in Toronto and Ottawa.

Now, it’s Saskatoon’s turn to host a touring production of the show.

As the indie-rock tag implies, this isn’t a traditional adaptation. Jonathan Winsby, who plays the title role, says Hille and Gladstone took the skeleton of the story and gave it a 21st-century twist.

That plays out in different ways, from lyrics and costumes to set design and choreography, says Winsby.

“There might be gentlemen in waistcoats, but they have stylish shoes like you’d see today. So there’s a chance for the audience to say ‘Okay, this feels like it’s a classic show except there are elements that are contemporary.’ You can hearken back to early 19th century Russia, but then feel like you’re watching something that’s happening right now.”

Bare Bones

Pushkin’s plot, in a nutshell, sees a Saint Petersburg dandy, still in his mid-20s but already bored and jaded with society life, inherit a rural estate from his uncle. But when he moves out to the country, he experiences culture shock. Despite his rude and selfish manner, he strikes up a friendship with young romantic poet named Lensky, and a local girl (Tatyana) ends up falling for him.

Onegin (pronounced Oh-nee –yay-gen) cavalierly rebuffs her advance, though, and then kills Lensky in a duel after the men have a foolish falling out at a party held to celebrate Tatyana’s birthday.

More tragedy lies in Onegin’s future but I’ll leave that for the performance. As for the relevance of the play to modern times, one idea that leaps out immediately is the urban/rural question.

Even in Saskatchewan, where rural roots still run deep and the two largest cities aren’t that large, there seems to be a growing disconnect. South of the border, of course, things are much worse, with Trump Nation and the “liberal/coastal elites” at political war with each other.

Given the various urban and rural tensions at play in Onegin, the showis a microcosm of that.

In our interview, Winsby drew a further parallel between the ennui Onegin suffers from and our current mania for social media.

“We don’t use any anachronistic social media references, but there is that feeling ‘Oh yes, I’m a young adult and life is boring me,’” says Winsby. “You get that now, where people flip through their phones every day, and that’s all they do. So it’s interesting to think how that played out in 19th century Russia. Even young audiences will recognize that feeling where the world doesn’t interest me much anymore, yet you still have so much of your life to live.”

Toxic Masculinity

While those two parallels are certainly interesting, the most potent link between Pushkin’s story and modern times is its portrait of masculinity. Emotionally unavailable, almost pathological in his indifference to other people’s feelings and circumstances, yet still wedded to rigid social codes and conventions around masculinity, Onegin is the epitome of what’s known today as toxic masculinity.

Hell, there’s even gun violence in defense of manhood — you can’t get any more toxic — or timely — than that.

“For me, the Lensky situation is the greatest tragedy,” says Winsby. “You can spin it a variety of ways, where maybe somebody over-reacted. But what it comes down to is that honour, in that society at that time, was everything for a man. If you were dishonoured it was a chain that hung not only around your neck, but also your children and the rest of your family.

“One thing Lensky says in one song is that honour is a ghost,” Winsby notes. “He uses the word a bunch of times in a negative context toward Onegin to the point where he says ‘You know what, sure, let’s do this’ as opposed to ‘Stop, I’m sorry, I was an idiot.’ Certainly, it’s different now. There aren’t too many ‘stand-off 30 paces, turn around and shoot’ duels anymore. But it is an emotion you can identify with in today’s world as well.”

The ultimate irony, of course, is that Pushkin died in a duel at age 37.

Girl Power

Another aspect of Onegin that invites comparison (and contrast) with modern day is the status of women.

“If you read the original, it might not have had certain feminist elements,” says Winsby. “But the way Veda and Amiel have revisited the story in the culture we’re in now, and you look at it through that lens, Tatyana comes across as quite a strong heroine. At one point near the end, she turns the tables on Onegin, and more often than not there’s a strong response from the audience of ‘Way to go girl!’

“It’s refreshing, because women in classical stories like this traditionally haven’t been represented as strong in relation to the men,” says Winsby. “I think it’s crucial to be able to do that now in our world, where things are changing, and changing for the better absolutely.”

If Onegin does a surgical job of identifying rifts in our current social fabric, it also offers a cautionary lesson on the need for change, says Winsby.

“With the way the world is now, and how we only seem to be able to identify with people who are like-minded, it’s crucial that we step back and see what connects us as opposed to what divides us.

“It’s a tough ask, we have a comfort level in our lives, and tend to avoid discomfort,” he says. “Yet that needs to be overcome, or else where will we ever find that improvement?”