Hamlet and Vysotsky
In Russia, Hamlet remains first of all a person - his individuality itself challenges authority. In 1971, at Moscow's Taganka Theater, Yuri Lyubimov opened a production that ran in repertory until 1980 (217 performances in all), when the early death of Vladimir Vysotsky, the poet-singer-actor who had played the lead and given the production its special character, brought it to a premature end. Lyubimov had been put in charge of the Taganka in 1964, the year that Kozintsev's Hamlet appeared. The theater's beginnings were made possible by the Khrushchev "thaw", although it soon began to generate a little too much heat for the wan Soviet spring. Eventually becoming an emblem of social and moral opposition to the regime, the Taganka succeeded in feeding the spiritual hunger of oppressed Russians.
In purely theatrical terms, Lyubimov's Hamlet was noteworthy for the cinematic montage of the mise-en-scene and the presence of a dominant stenographic image - a ubiquitous, constantly moving curtain (designed by David Borovsky); but far more important was its cultural role and the spiritual power of its leading performer. When he took on Hamlet, Vysotsky was already well known as a troubadour of spiritual freedom - he was "the living soul and conscience of his time" (Gershkovich, 129), much loved throughout the Soviet Union because his songs spoke truth in the oblique ways typical of heavily censored societies. He died during the Moscow Olympics, and people abandoned their stadiums and TV sets to participate in a spontaneous memorial service. Though there had been no announcement of his death in the press, within hours everyone in Moscow knew of it, and thousands gathered near the theater, where his legendary guitar was displayed, to recite his poems and honor his memory. At the funeral a few days later, mourners jammed the streets all around the Taganka, but only a few were able to file past the coffin before it was whisked away, while someone on a rooftop with a loud voice described the scene to the pressing crowd. "After Vysotsky's funeral," said Lyubimov, "I began to respect the people of Moscow".
For all the obvious differences, the scene is reminiscent of David Garrick's brilliant obsequies two hundred years earlier. Those were officially sanctioned, orderly, designed to honor the greatest English actor as a national hero. Vysotsky's were unofficial and disorderly, a sign of repressed desire for freedom in defiance of oppressive authority. But Vysotsky was also a national hero, and, like Garrick, he was especially identified with Hamlet. In part, he appeared with his guitar. The production began on a bare stage, open to the whitewashed back wall, which was adorned only with a heavy wooden cross. Two silhouetted gravediggers swigged vodka and tossed dirt and skulls out of an open grave downstage (the grave remained throughout). Hamlet, in casual modern dress, approached the grave and, accompanying himself on the guitar, recited Pasternak's Hamlet poem from the banned Dr. Zhivago:
The stir is over. I step forth on the boards.Pasternak's great translation of Hamlet defined the character in Russian terms - serious, dedicated, self-sacrificing; he is a witness, even a Christ-like sufferer who "gives up his will in order to "do the will of him that sent him" Hamlet is not a drama of weakness, but of duty and self-denial." He has been allotted the role of "judge of his own time and servant of the future" (Pasternak, quoted in Rowe 148). His reality, as the poem suggest, is interwoven with that of the actor, in struggle with himself, putting himself on the line in order to explode "the misrepresentations which produced moral failure in Soviet life" (Golub 161):
And yet the order of the acts has been schemed and plottedThe visual and symbolic dominance of the Taganka's mobile curtain was designed to carry the production's distinctively Soviet meaning. Coarsely woven of wool, though appearing like macrame with "threads hanging in evil bundles", the curtain controlled the action, falling from the ceiling after the opening song, moving around and between the actors, like a giant monster... setting the pace, and holding within its folds the symbols and tools of power - black armbands, swords, goblet, thrones edged with knives. It envelops Ophelia, intimidates Polonius, protects Gertrude, supports Claudius and threatens Hamlet. Finally it sweeps the stage clean and moves toward the audience as though to destroy it too. (M. Croyden, quoted in Leiter 145)
...The theatrical emphasis did not, however, transform the meaning of the play into an endless succession of mirrored images. Rather, it spoke of the theater's power to construct for its public truth matters. Vysotsky's style of playing fit in with this conception. His strategy was to maintain the distance between actor and role (as in Zadek and Muller though for a different purpose), not blending with the character but expressing his own personal relationship to it. Thus he remained the singer, the troubadour performing the part and communicating his relationship to Hamlet as a way of disclosing his own isolation, of establishing his own poetic voice, and most important of seeking a way to live. He began the run as rather "nihilistic", but as his conception matured, his Hamlet became more attuned, more a searcher for possible answers to the "necessary question" that he speaks of in his own poem called "My Hamlet" (Gershkovich 128-9). The production, like the actor, came to speak for an affirmation of life in the face of curtain and grave, a post-Stalinist theme of "survival and salvation, rather than the Stalin era's death them, revenge" (Golub 166).
A year after Vysotsky's death, Lyubimov put together a performance collage entitle The Poet Vladimir Vysotsky, which was banned before it opened, though a few public "dress rehearsals" escaped the censor's fist. Focusing on Vysotsky's place in Soviet culture, the show re-enacted his street songs, his anti-war songs, his evocations of everyday Soviet life, all with an undercurrent of social alienation and a muted desire to speak out. Interspersed throughout were references to and fragments of Hamlet, such as a satiric dialogue in which the King and Polonius discussed the strategic "madness" of Hamlet's "singing hooliganism" or, as a culmination, a reprise of "To be or not to be", the cornerstone of Pasternak's and Vysotsky conception. From a song about Russian baths the performance shifted without pause to Vysotsky's recorded voice swiftly traversing the soliloquy: "so a thought turns us all into cowards and our decisiveness withers like a flower... Thoughts that at first promised success die with a sweep of a hand." The finale returned to the singer and his songs, producing a double image of hpe and defiance against death and loss: "They've cornered me, cornered me -/ But the huntsman isn't left with anything..." was followed by "I didn't have time... to finish living. I won't have time to finish singing..." At the end the voice faltered, like Hamlet's, into a long silence (Gershkovich 116-26).
From "Hamlet", by Anthony B. Dawson, Manchaster Univesity Press, NY, 1995. Read more on Hamlet Anthology