Harriet Crawley explains how England’s greatest playwright is striking in Moscow
NOT a day goes by without some gruesome murder being reported in the Moscow press, so it’s no wonder that in the new production at the Yugo-Zapadnaya theatre, Macbeth is a gangster.
The play is steeped in terror; the butchery of Macduff’s wife and son strikes a cruelly contemporary chord. The three witches are played by male actors wearing sinister back-to front masks.
Everyone expects something different from the Yugo-Zapadnaya, the centre of Shakespeare in Moscow. The founder of the theatre, actor/director Valery Belyakovich, has put on three Shakespeare tragedies. His production of Hamlet was a critical success at the Edinburgh Festival in 1994; he wowed the Japanese with his Romeo and Juliet last year, and now comes Macbeth. Belyakovich himself plays the part of Banquo.
Why Macbeth? “Beggars can’t be choosers in Moscow,” he said. “I was in this antique shop and I found an old suit of armour. Great, I said. We’ll do Macbeth.”
Hamlet was also born of a whim. Belyakovich was drinking with his troupe when he looked across the table at a new recruit with a long soulful face and heavy eyes. “My God, you look like Hamlet,” he realised. Belyakovich is proud that he sees Shakespeare through Russian eyes – he has never been to London or Stratford-on-Avon.
For his text he prefers to us translations by the author Boris Pasternak, who was commissioned to translate Shakespeare at the height of Stalin’s postwar repression.
According to Chenghiz Gusseinov, of the Moscow Literary Institute, Shakespeare was to Stalin what Wagner was to Hitler. “The dictator saw his own reflection in Macbeth; Shakespeare’s plays are full of people with murderous passions, and in a twisted sort of way Stalin felt that Shakespeare was good propaganda.”
Shakespeare first arrived in Russia in translations from French in the 18th century, but according to the head archivist at the Moscow Theatre Museum, it was Goethe who fired the enthusiasm of Russian intellectuals.
By the middle of the 19th century, the Maly theatre in Moscow was putting on regular productions of Julius Caesar, Richard III, Macbeth, King Lear, Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It, and many of Russia’s leading writers, among them Turgenev, were passionate enthusiasts.
But Tolstoy couldn’t stand Shakespeare and thundered his disapproval in his essay Shakespeare and the Drama written in 1903 when he was over 70 and had re-read Shakespeare from start to finish in German, English and Russian. His conclusion was the same: an overpowering sense of “repulsiveness, weariness and bewilderment”.
In the late 1920s the Soviet Union banned Shakespeare for a while for being too aristocratic. But on the whole Shakespeare survived communism pretty well. In the 1930s Mikhail Lozinsky translated the main plays, only to be eclipsed after the war by Pasternak. Pasternak considered his translation of Hamlet as one of finest achievements.
Most Russians would agree that of all Shakespeare’s tragedies Hamlet digs deepest into the Russian soul. Today this play is part and parcel of Russian culture and has even spawned a new word , Hamletism.
“Over the years Russians have made Shakespeare their own,” explains Gusseinov. “Hamlet is Russian. He speaks our language.”