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As they like it: Shakespeare in Russia

As they like it: Shakespeare in Russia

As Shakespeare's Globe takes its Hamlet world tour to Moscow, Andrew Dickson examines Russia's complicated love affair with the Bard

22 April 2014
Text Andrew Dickson

Early this May, when a troupe of British actors step off a plane in Moscow, a modest piece of history will have been made. It will be the first time Shakespeare’s Globe in London has brought a show to Russia – a pitstop on the theatre’s adventurous Globe to Globe tour, in which the company attempts to take Hamlet to every single country in the world between now and 2016. It will also mark the start of the first UK–Russia year of culture, in which Kazimir Malevich and cosmonauts will come to London while, courtesy of the Barbican’s Designing 007 exhibition, James Bond goes to Russia (travelling, for once, on official papers).

The Globe’s visit, like Bond’s, is a landmark. But as they stroll around Moscow in their two precious days there, the actors would do well to remember that their house playwright got there long in advance. He has, in fact, been in Russia for centuries, mingling with the locals and learning the language. These days, you could argue, he almost counts as a native.

Midsummer Night’s Dream As You Like It, directed by Dmitry Krymov, will be returning to London’s Barbican in November

Shakespeare himself seems to have been a unadventurous traveller, to put it mildly: to the best of our knowledge, he spent his entire life in Stratford-upon-Avon, in London or on the road between the two. But his imagination roamed far and wide. He set plays in Austria, Scotland, Denmark, Turkey and in the Ardennes forest on the Belgium–Luxembourg border. He seems to have had a thing about Italy (Venice, Verona, Padua) and about islands: Sicily is the setting for Much Ado about Nothing, most of Othello takes place on Cyprus, while The Tempest has its own nameless “isle”, half-based on the islands of Bermuda but ingeniously relocated to the Mediterranean.

Another destination his mind’s eye reached was Russia: as well as scattered references in other plays, Shakespeare’s early comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost has a curious scene in which three French lords dress up as “Muscovites” in order to woo three French ladies. This is usually the cue for directors to break out the comedy beards and fake-fur hats — the lords make fools of themselves — but given that ambassadors from Ivan the Terrible really did make appearances at Elizabeth I’s court, the reference is pointed, not to say undiplomatic.

“Tolstoy’s essay ‘Shakespeare and Drama’ rails against everything from the implausibility of Shakespeare’s characters to his supposed aristocratic sympathies”

Even before his death in 1616, Shakespeare’s plays were being toured up the Baltic coast by hardy troupes of English actors, who, by the 1640s, got as far north as Riga. But it wasn’t for another century that the so-called father of Russian drama, Alexander Sumarokov, translated a play by a man he called the “inspired barbarian”, in whose work, he wrote, “there is much that is bad and exceedingly good”. Sumarokov’s view of Shakespeare as an accidental genius — a kind of holy fool — says more about Sumarokov than it does about Shakespeare. But his view persisted in Russia through the early nineteenth century, as the theatre-going Russians struggled to reconcile their taste for neoclassical drama imported from France, home of all that was civilised, with Shakespeare’s more lawless and ungovernable plays.

Catherine the Great was an early translator of Shakespeare into Russian. Portrait by Mikhail Shibanov (1787)

That said, his reputation was enhanced in 1786 when none other than Catherine the Great, an avid reader of Shakespeare in French, adapted The Merry Wives of Windsor and, soon afterwards, the little-performed tragedy Timon of Athens — possibly the only time that a serving head of state has moonlighted as a Shakespeare translator. Inspired by a Romantic obsession with the Bard that began in Germany, translations began to pour from Russian presses from the 1840s. These translations fired the imagination of generations: literary critic Vissarion Belinsky admitted to being “enslaved by the drama of Shakespeare”; the great poet and playwright Alexander Pushkin drew heavily on Hamlet, as well as the history plays, for his drama of kingship and conscience Boris Godunov; novelist Ivan Turgenev, the author of Fathers and Sons, wrote numerous stories on Shakespearian themes, as well as a famous essay on “Hamlet and Don Quixote”; Fyodor Dostoevsky was hugely influenced by Macbeth in particular, with Crime and Punishment revisiting the themes of murder and guilt. Tolstoy, however, was, notoriously, not a fan: his 1906 essay “Shakespeare and Drama” rails against everything from the implausibility of Shakespeare’s characters to his supposed aristocratic sympathies.

“Critics attempted to align Shakes with Marxist-Leninist thought, resourcefully interpreting the pastoral comedy As You Like It as a critique of land privatisation”

Though Russian literature was by now heavily saturated by his influence, it took longer for Shakespeare to find a home in Russian theatre. Hamlet was one of the first plays to be performed, in the mid-nineteenth century (there are stories about serfs adapting the tragedy and performing it for their masters), while stars from Europe and further afield brought Shakespeare’s scripts to Russian audiences. One of the greatest was the African-American actor Ira Aldridge, who, unable to perform in his homeland, became a huge star in Russia, playing roles including Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and Othello in the 1850s, when he was decorated by Tsar Alexander II. Shakespeare was also an inspiration to Russian composers, most of all Pyotr Tchaikovsky, whose Fantasy Overture to Romeo and Juliet (1880) transforms the play into a passionate and lovelorn symphonic poem.

In the communist era Shakespeare’s status was hotly debated, but — in death as in life — he proved impressively adaptable to the winds of ideological change. Critics attempted to align him with Marxist-Leninist thought, resourcefully interpreting the pastoral comedy As You Like It as a critique of land privatisation and Timon of Athens, whose hero goes bust in spectacular fashion, as an attack on unfettered capitalism (Marx had written approvingly about Timon’s denunciation of the “yellow slave” — gold).

American Shakesperean actor Ira Aldridge found fame in Russia. Portrait as Othello, by James Northcote (1826)

Ironically, however, because Shakespeare’s work was officially sanctioned, it also became the conduit via which dissidents could voice criticism. Anna Akhmatova read his plays and poems intensively and Boris Pasternak, unable to publish his own work after Stalin began his purges, turned to Shakespeare as a way of keeping himself sane. Pasternak translated the sonnets and a number of plays, but his masterpieces are undoubtedly his muscular versions of King Lear and Hamlet, both completed in the 1940s. The latter in particular seems to have been a creative lifeline: Pasternak called it “a drama of high calling, of a pre-ordained heroic death, of entrusted destiny”, words that eerily mirror his own struggle for creative freedom.

That struggle was echoed across the Soviet Union, where the plays — by now translated into 28 of the languages of the USSR — were intermittently staged as critiques of official policy right up to the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1989, particularly in Georgia.

Pasternak’s translations are responsible for one of the great glories of Russian Shakespeare, two films by Grigori Kozintsev that use them as screenplays. Disdaining the post-Romantic tradition of interpreting the play psychologically, Kozintsev’s Hamlet (1964) offers a brutal exercise in realpolitik, in which legendary Soviet actor Innokenty Smoktunovsky is trapped in a court whose machinations he cannot begin to comprehend. (Smotkunovsky was no stranger to brutal realpolitik: wespite winning medals for gallantry during the Second World War, time as a prisoner of war in Germany meant that he was barred from living in major cities and had to hone his craft on the provincial stage.) Kozintsev’s Lear (1971) is an even bleaker experience: the king, played by the diminutive Estonian actor Jüri Järvet, is expelled into a wilderness both literal and political, the erosion of his sanity shadowed by Dmitry Shostakovich’s angular and half-deranged score. Both films are among the finest adaptations captured on celluloid, in any language.

Shakespeare’s presence in contemporary Russia seems stronger than ever: in the hands of visionary directors such as St Petersburg’s Lev Dodin and Moscow’s Kirill Serebrennikov, the plays are constantly reimagined, and they are in the core repertoire of theatres across the Russian Federation, staged as frequently as firm favourites like Anton Chekhov and Alexander Ostrovsky.

Later this summer, audiences back in Britain will even have the opportunity to get a taste of Russian Shakespeare for themselves. In mid-June, not long after the Globe actors pause in Moscow, quixotic director Dmitry Krymov brings his gleefully anarchic mash-up of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to London’s Barbican. Krymov’s version offers audiences an opera singer, acrobats and puppets, plus the near-certainty of getting soaked. You could say it offers something even more valuable, too: the opportunity to see the “inspired barbarian” in the original Russian.

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