Theater’s fantastic realism

Vakhtangov Theater director Rimas Tuminas shares some of his thoughts on his upcoming performances.

Anton Chekhov's 'Uncle Vanya' 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Anton Chekhov's 'Uncle Vanya' 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Moscow-based Vakhtangov Theater – named after Yevgeny Vakhtangov, the director who developed an approach known as “fantastic realism” and also directed The Dybbuk in the early 1920s for the then-Soviet Habimah Theater – has recently experienced a kind of renaissance, with increasing interest both in Russia and abroad. This month, it will present Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya as one of the highlights of the Israel Festival.
The production, which won Russia Theater’s prestigious Golden Mask Prize, stars Russian film and theater star Sergey Makovetsky in the title role, and was directed by Lithuanian-born director Rimas Tuminas. Tuminas, who studied television direction at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theater as well as the Russian Academy of Theater Arts, shared some of his thoughts about Chekhov and Uncle Vanya with the Magazine.
What are your impressions of Chekhov as an author after working closely with his material for so many years?
Chekhov uses truth in order to lie. He’s a genius play-actor. He was playful not only with himself, he was also playful in relation to life. As if he comes to us knowing who we are, and why we are, and plays pranks on us with his plays. I’ve gotten to know him so well, he’s become like a close person – like a relative whom I knew well.
What do you consider to be the theme that most concerned Chekhov?
The most important theme which Chekhov touched upon – in Uncle Vanya, in Three Sisters, in everything – is the theme of happiness. He seemed to be smiling as he looked upon us reaching for happiness, at how we want to be happy because someone told us we need unfailingly to be happy.
From our very childhood, and even now, we wish for happiness. And if we never encounter it, we become vindictive, angry, aggressive. In Chekhov, happiness exists somewhere nearby. It exists, but not for me. This is no tragedy. This has to be understood and accepted. You have to draw a smile on your face and open your eyes wide. And to live with this smile of happiness. How beautiful we would then be! This is what pulls me to Chekhov and makes me feel close to him.
Beyond happiness, how would you describe the concerns of Uncle Vanya?
The most important thing about Uncle Vanya is not hidden, and yet it passes unnoticeably: This is the theme of art. The professor deals with art, as does the whole Voinitsky family – the mother, Sonia, and uncle Vanya himself. In the play, Sonia tells Prof. Serebryakov: “Remember, when you were younger, uncle Vanya and grandma translated books for you through the night, copied out your papers... every night, every night!”
Here I noticed and tried to uncover the question of art: What is it for us? Art in Chekhov doesn’t save anything, doesn’t bring order to the world; there needs to be something else. It’s only the road to a world of harmony. The thirst for beauty and an orderly world stays with us as our dream. Chekhov started to doubt, but he saw this not as a tragedy, but as a road that leads nowhere. We’re small, poor, we only imagine ourselves to be big, significant. Maybe something has to appear, some kind of strength, some kind of life from another planet or galaxy, which has to come and help us. So that we become humbler, so that we become embarrassed about our own life.
How do these questions relate to life beyond art or theater?
Life is currently full of double standards in politics. We’ve started living dishonestly, everything is justified by “democracy” and “freedom.” This way, we take dishonest, undignified actions. Something that looks like self-destruction. And here Dostoevsky also comes to mind: “There are minutes when a person likes crime...” Maybe for us these are no longer minutes; rather, our whole life already looks like a crime.
The same is true with me: I very much believed that art and theater could enrich us, make us happy, maybe even good-hearted. But doubts overcame me – maybe the way that they did Chekhov – and I believe in this less and less. My faith is not yet extinguished. I feed it, perhaps sometimes I lie to myself, setting myself up.
Chekhov’s plays are sometimes considered slow and depressing, but there is also a good dose of humor between the lines. How do you bring that humor out to audiences both Russian and foreign?
With the use of montage, which is a cinematographic term. You see, I came to theater from television, where I was a director, and it’s possible that the beauty of montage remained for me: Feeling is arranged together with light, light with dramatic situations, humor with the sadness, sadness with tragedy. Sound is unique, it lives an independent life, and sometimes weaves in and out of the game of montage. Though montage we arrive at carnivalization. And this becomes, as I’ve noticed, understandable both to Russian audiences and to audiences from any other country.
What are your thoughts about bringing the Vakhtangov Theater to Israel?
I experience a personal pride on behalf of the Vakhtangov Theater. Interest in the company has grown. And this makes life harder for me. I’m overcome by fear. A fear that the next play won’t be as good as the previous. It’s like a fear of heights.