Why Russian Director Rimas Tuminas Doesn’t Believe in ‘Topical’ Re-Imagingings of Shakespeare or Chekhov

Special Features   Why Russian Director Rimas Tuminas Doesn’t Believe in ‘Topical’ Re-Imagingings of Shakespeare or Chekhov Esteemed Russian director Rimas Tuminas returns to New York with the award-winning Vakhtangov Theater production of Uncle Vanya.
A scene from <i>Uncle Vanya</i>
A scene from Uncle Vanya

Rimas Tuminas’ first encounter with the plays of Anton Chekhov was so profound that Tuminas, then a drama student in Soviet Lithuania, decided to become a theater director for the most part to stage them.

Over the past 25 years, Tuminas has done just that—first as founder of the Small Theater in Vilnius, and for the past decade as artistic director of Moscow’s renowned Vakhtangov Theater. His inventive, highly nuanced interpretations of Chekhov and Shakespeare, as well as more contemporary playwrights, have brought the 95-year-old company to the forefront of Russian drama and earned Tuminas international acclaim. With his emphasis on exploring characters’ motivations and uncovering layers of meaning within the text, Tuminas follows in the footsteps of the theatre’s founder, Stanislavsky scholar Evgeny Vakhtangov.

His production of Uncle Vanyaplaying at City Center from June 15-18—premiered in 2009 and received the Golden Mask Award, Russia’s equivalent to a Tony Award, for Best Production.

You’ve directed Uncle Vanya many times. Why revisit the play now?
RIMAS TUMINAS: I’m always looking for an opportunity to stage Chekhov. Whenever I get sick or anxious, whenever I’m loveless and repulsive to myself, I turn to Chekhov as I would to a doctor. He treats me with simple herbs; I stage his plays and recover. We did Uncle Vanya for the first time about 20 years ago with graduates from my acting course in Vilnius. Since then, I’ve staged Vanya in many different theatres and countries. The play is like a folk song, a melody that never gets old. It’s beautiful and timeless. It’s native to my soul, and I have a right to sing it. Starting work on Vanya at the Vakhtangov Theater, I realized how much I had yet to discover: the way the characters change, and the difficult conversation that Chekhov enters into with our time. Uncle Vanya is about something that troubles humanity today: the careless way we treat each other.

It’s often said that Chekhov’s sense of humor doesn’t translate well. Can you talk about the humor in Chekhov’s work?
Chekhov looked at people’s desire to be happy and thought, “My god, you are so funny! You daydream and expect happiness, knowing full well that it’s impossible!” He sees all these poor, holy creatures who want something and are reaching for something even though there’s nothing up ahead, and it makes him smile a kind, forgiving smile. That’s probably why there’s so much humor in his plays. It’s deeply hidden, but if we can grasp it, perhaps we’ll understand something important about our own lives.

Would you ever “modernize” or otherwise alter a work by Chekhov?
Our principal position is to be devotees of the author’s text. We remain loyal to it, editing and rewriting nothing. I don’t believe in “topical” productions. A masterpiece by Chekhov or Shakespeare never defends itself from you. To the contrary, it’s as if the author invites you in. It’s tough for him on his own. He waits for you, misses you, yearns for your company and conversation. He’s ready to collaborate. My feeling is that there’s a sound ringing throughout history and the cosmos. It’s the sound of the ages, and we must hear it and stage it.

You’ve often spoken about your love of Pushkin, Lermontov, and Gogol. What do you find in the Russian canon that you don’t find elsewhere?
What could be better than Pushkin, Lermontov, Chekhov, and Gogol? With age, one tires of telling stories in three acts; there’s a desire to return to literature and find the theater in literature. The Russians knew the mystery of death. The entire world asks them, “What is this mystery?” The Russians cannot answer; they can only sing about it. But if you sing, it means you’ve understood something, that you know. It seems to me that the path to truth, harmony, and beauty is most easily and correctly found in the Russian classics.

What’s unique about the Vakhtangov Theater? What aspects of the theater’s traditions and culture have been most important to you during your decade at the helm?
Throughout its 95-year history, our theatre has always been loyal to the credo of its founder, Yevgeny Vakhtangov: “If there is no celebration, there can be no performance.” I’m bringing back this celebration. In some ways, it’s much easier for a director not to have a permanent troupe and simply to cast actors depending on the production. That way you have no moral or social obligations, because an actor can always be found to play a particular part. But in terms of the theatre, this strikes me as vulgar and opportunistic—a sort of easy way out. A director has to be able to absorb a theatre’s history and at the same time unleash a troupe’s potential in new ways.

You’ve said, “We are asleep, but the theater can help us wake up.” What did you mean?
We all wander different paths in life, but sooner or later we realize that there is only one true path to beauty, harmony, and eternity. We come to understand that only through struggle, through earth’s purgatory, can we become human. Theatre alone, with its gentle force, calls upon us to walk this path. Right now, I’m seeing an encouraging trend: actors are returning to the theatre, to their roots, like thirsty men to a spring. Theatre is the actor’s homeland and family. That’s why this widespread desire to perform onstage makes me very happy.

I can’t resist one more “you said” question. You once said, “The theatre is a place where performers overcome their fears and audiences are absolved of their mortal sins.” Which sins can viewers hope to be absolved of at Uncle Vanya?
In theatre, broadly speaking, we’re always seeking redemption from sin. This may sound pompous, but a performance is like a prayer. The vulgar, cynical times we’re living in have poisoned us, and as an antidote we need Uncle Vanya’s gentleness, loyalty, love, and respect for working people. So many in our society no longer feel needed; they’ve disengaged from life, seeing it as a prison increasingly devoid of honesty, innocence, sensitivity, decency, and love. We need Uncle Vanya to support us. “Do the deed!” Let this also be our theatre’s motto.

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