Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Boris Godunov in the modern era

I found myself having to read Boris Godunov so that I could make any sense out of Eimuntas Nekrosius' latest production.  He was originally going to stage it in Moscow with a Russian cast but when Russia annexed Crimea, Nekrosius chose to cancel the production and reset it in Vilnius with a Lithuanian cast.

It came out last May, 2015, but my wife and I only got around to seeing it this past weekend.  Lithuanian theater is very different in that you don't get long running shows, but rather recurring shows.  It must make it tough on actors as one has to hold a whole repertoire in his head, as one could very well be performing one play one week and entirely different play the next week.  Each director has his core actors, but they draw actors from each other quite often.  It is quite impressive seeing these actors take on so many roles during the theater season.

Unfortunately, Boris didn't translate very well to the modern era.  In my opinion, this is a very specific story set in the late 16th and early 17th centuries and seeing the characters come out in trench coats and leather jackets doesn't really work.  Marina Mniszech looked like a sexy WWII German spy seducing the poor False Dmitry in his cheap leather jacket, who had so madly fallen in love with her and wanted to drop his charade.  Marina convinces him to go through with his plot to usurp Boris.  There was something oddly Soviet about the whole production which belied the very nature of the play, set between the Muscovites and the Lithuanian Grand Duchy as they vied for power over the Slavic world.

Pushkin didn't have much time for either Poles or Lithuanians, even though his grandfather Hannibal was baptized in a Russian Orthodox church in Vilnius.  Hannibal was an emancipated slave who was rechristened Abram Petrovich Gannibal and raised in Peter the Great's household.  For Pushkin, the former Grand Duchy very much represented the Pale of Tsarist Russia.

However, in this play we see a major conflict between the two powers, which is based squarely on history.  The play is broken up into scenes, with entirely different sets that would seem by today's standards to be better suited for a movie.  Mussorgsky made it into an opera in the 1870s, which is often reprised.  Pushkin intended it as a play but it has rarely been produced this way.

Pushkin was steeped in Shakespeare at the time.  The relationship between Boris and Dmitry is very similar to that of Richard III but the structure of the play is entirely different.  Ultimately Boris simply dies, and the false Dmitry, who was actually a defrocked monk, gains the throne by default.  Pushkin chooses to end the play this way, even though the false Dmitry's reign was very short lived and it was the devious Prince Shuisky who ultimately gained the royal seat, the last in the Rurik Dynasty.

I'm not sure what the intent was here, as the translation I read didn't strike me as a very good one.  It read very straight up, as if Pushkin was simply providing an excerpt into early Russian history before Peter the Great subordinated the Polish-Lithuanian Joint Kingdom, with Catherine later absorbing Lithuania into the Russian empire.  Maybe it was a cautionary tale of all the tumult that existed before Russia achieved its greatness and why Russians should forever be wary of their western neighbors.

I'm equally puzzled why Nekrosius showed great interest in this play other than to further impress audiences with his ability to tackle difficult productions.  I think it would have worked better in Russian.  Language is an essential part in all of Pushkin's work language.  Translated into Lithuanian or English, it loses much of its meaning and resonance.

It does appear that Nekrosius was trying to reverse the cautionary tale, reminding Lithuanian audiences that at one time this country posed a serious threat to Tsarist Russia, linking it to the ongoing battle in the 20th century when Lithuania finally won its independence back in 1991.  However, you can only read this between the lines, as Nekrosius pretty much sticks to the original text.

Anyway, it was fun to watch.  I particularly enjoyed the scene in the tavern on the edge of the Lithuanian wilderness, where Gregory tries to fool the Russian soldiers with his interpretation of the Tsar's edict for the capture of a runaway monk.  Nekrosius had great fun with this scene, playing it to full absurdist effect, which was the hallmark of his earlier plays.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Just another roadside picnic

In an effort to kickstart this blog again, I recently received a copy of Roadside Picnic, which inspired Tarkovsky's Stalker.  I saw the movie years ago, and quite frankly couldn't make heads or tails of it, so am hoping that the book will help me put together some of the pieces before doing another viewing.  It was interesting to read that I wasn't the only one interested in the classic Soviet sci-fi novel.  WGN bought the screen rights to it and is planning a television series based on the novel.   A video game has also been designed around the theme.

Neither of the Strugatsky Brothers are with us anymore, but for decades they were kind of like the Coen Brothers of Soviet science fiction, turning out a great number of novels in the genre dating back to 1958.  They were mostly collaborative efforts, but there were a few solo novels as well, with Boris penning the last work in 2003.

Soviet sci-fi is what propels Victor Pelevin, one of my favorite writers, although he fuses it with contemporary thoughts and observations as was the case in Generation π, or Babylon as it has been retitled in English.

There's quite a  bit of Soviet and Russian science fiction translated into English.  Here's a sampling. Yevgeny Zamyatin is the most well known writer on the list.  We was the basis for another Tarkovsky movie, Solaris, which was also adapted into an American film.

It was more the existential aspect than the science fiction element that attracted Tarkovsky to these novels.  In Stalker, you get more a post-Apocalyptic feeling in which everything has been reduced to ruins and persons are left to interpret what it all means.  I gather the Strugatsky Brothers were more upfront in their novel, so very curious to read what it meant in their minds.

Friday, February 12, 2016

War and Peace in the Bedroom

It is hard to imagine what BBC expected when they signed a young director, Tom Harper, to do War & Peace.  The 35-year-old director did do Demons, but it was based on the fabulous adventures of van Helsing, not Dostoevsky.  There is little in Harper's resume to suggest that he was up to the task, which I suppose is why BBC enlisted veteran screenwriter Andrew Davies to adapt the novel to the television screen.

Suffice it to say young Tom is no Sergei Bondarchuk.  I question whether he even read the book, but rather adapted Bondarchuk's enthralling epic film to the television screen.  This new version was more about scenography than acting, with the characters pretty much reduced to stand-ins for the roles.  There were a few big name actors like Paul Dano, Jim Broadbent, Stephen Rea and Gillian Anderson, but for the most part these were newbies or actors you hadn't heard about unless you tune into BBC programming.

Lily James was the star of the show, fresh off her success in Downton Abbey and as Cinderella in the latest cinematic version.  Her perky character fit Natasha Rostova well enough in the early scenes, but when the demand on her talents increased as the story unfolded she was woefully lacking.  I think it would have been better to try to enlist the services of Alicia Vikander, who gave a pretty decent turn as Kitty Oblonsky in Anna Karenina.  However, I think these actors got little in the way of direction and were left to their own devices as to how to draw something out of their characters.

It's worth comparing these two recent adaptations as they were both British productions.  Anna Karenina was a 2012 cinematic release by Joe Wright, who re-imagined the novel as a theatrical production, infusing it with rich colors and having the actors throw their hearts and souls into the Tom Stoppard script, with heightened dramatic effect.  The novel was shaved down to two hours, so there was a lot missing, but the intent of the novel was very much in place, and you really felt for Anna when her world fell apart over her illicit love for Count Vronsky.

Tom Harper gave War & Peace more space but utterly failed in capturing the intent of the novel.  He and Davies reduced it to a bedroom drama, where sex and intrigue drive the mini-series, particularly in the nasty characterization of Helene Bezukhova, who seems to sleep with just about everyone during the course of this series, including her brother.  This generated the most advance publicity, as there was no explicit reference to incest in the novel, but Davies felt it was implied in the novel and that was enough for him.

There is no nuance, nor theatrically in this telling.  It is a paint-by-numbers production with sex scenes thrown in so that you won't fall asleep over the approximately 6-hour running time.  The scenes were mostly shot in and around Vilnius, Lithuania, with a few scenes shot in Petersburg for dramatic effect.  There is no sense of an epic as most of the action takes place in the narrow confines of set productions.  As such, it might have behooved Harper to take the same approach as Wright and make this a theatrical production.  Of course that would have meant reading the novel and reducing it down to its essence, which it doesn't seem Tom Harper nor Andrew Davies had the patience to do.

The worst part about this production is the way Paul Dano played Pierre Bezukhov.  He kept the same doe-eyed, open-mouthed expression virtually throughout the movie.  It was like he projected Bezukhov as Oblomov, a slothful figure who finds himself on the receiving end of great wealth and doesn't know what to do with it. There is some attempt to get to the soul of Bezukhov's character, but nothing like Bondarchuk in his telling, who offered numerous philosophical and poetic asides as they related to the novel.  We are simply supposed to project from Paul Dano's woeful countenance what is lurking beneath his forlorn character.

James Norton as Andrei Bolkonsky isn't any better, but at least Norton gives some measure of pride to his character, and you can see why Natasha might be attracted to him.  However, as the series unfolds, Norton also gets lost in his role, unable to project the changes in his attitude, particularly when he falls in love with Natasha.  Suffice it to say, the famous waltz in no way matches the original.

The periphery figures more or less fade into the background with a few notable exceptions.  Jim Broadbent gave Bolkonsky's father the fierceness he had in the novel.  Tom Burke was both charming and cunning as Dolokhov, the first of many to betray poor Pierre.  Tuppence Middleton was quite fetching as Bezukhov's treacherous wife.   Unfortunately, Stephen Rea and Gillian Anderson were given incidental roles, factoring little in the story.  

Brian Cox shined in his brief moments as General Kutuzov, but there was very little about the war itself in this telling.  Napoleon figured much less prominently than he did in history or the novel, which was just as well as because Mathieu Kassovitz was awful in the role.  The war is used mostly as a prop to show a few combat horrors and how the personalities of the leading men changed.  There is nothing like that scene in Bondarchuk's epic when Bezukhov wanders across the battle field trying to make sense of all the carnage.  These scenes were pretty much done on the cheap with CGI to give the illusion of Napoleon's Grand Armee.  Bondarchuk had spent millions recreating the battle scenes.

I suppose you have to refresh the classics from time to time so as to kindle interest in a new generation, but it is doubtful today's kids are going to slog through a 1500-page book where the big payoff is Pierre finally getting together with Natasha after reading of Russia's great defense of its homeland and proud noble tradition.  This movie looked like it was derived from the Cliff Notes.

As my wife said afterward, you didn't care for anyone in this television series, except maybe Marya Bolkonskaya, who had to endure a tyrannical father through most of the series, only to find her love in the end as well.  There was something endearing about Jessie Buckley's portrayal.  As for Lily James, she looked like Cinderella in Tsarist Russian times not sure which Prince to take.  Fortunately, Bolkonsky made it easy for her.