Midwinter - Candlemas / 2nd February - has come and gone. In Christian lore it’s the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple when baby J is taken to the Temple in Jerusalem to complete Mary's ritual purification after giving birth. When they arrived the proud parents bumped into Simon the Righteous, a devout man who had been promised by the Holy Ghost that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. Simeon took Jesus into his arms and said the lovely prayer Nunc dimittis and the version I give here is from the 1662 English Book of Common Prayer:
“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation
which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
to be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.”
Traditionally ‘Candle Mass’ referred to the blessing of candles for use through the year both in churches and homes. Until the late Middle Ages most of the beeswax for the candles would have come from Russia and probably passed through a prosperous market town in Old Livonia –Tarbatu, Tharbata, Děrpt, Dorpat, Юрьев (Yuryev), Дерпт (Derpt), Tarto, in other words, through Tartu.
What a winter this is! The average temperature is around –15 to -20. The first snow fell in November and we had a very white Yuletide. After the snow came the temperature plummeted and the world went very cold and very still. If one has the right clothes and walks briskly then very cold temperatures can be rather exhilarating … and, of course, even the dreariest place is covered in white, sparkling, filigree snow drenched in bright, bright sunlight. My light sensitive specs are like sunglasses when I come indoors.
The inhospitable weather has been a major disincentive to going out after nightfall (about 15.30) and I have been rummaging around my forty or so telly channels for entertainment. Usually I give the Russian channels a miss as, superficially, they seem to be either badly dubbed bad American films or bad Russian films imitating bad American films. But some further explorations have proved most interesting! I was delighted to catch Grigori Kozintsev’s 1964 Hamlet, loosely translated into Russian by Boris Pasternak with a great score by Shostakovich. I first saw this moody black and white version in the 1960s when I used to go to ‘art films’ in the student film club at Bristol University Chemistry Department. I loved the Russian Hamlet the first time I saw it and my enthusiasm has not waned despite the fact that I have must have seen it at least a dozen times since. This, however, was the first time I had seen it in Estonia and this time I noticed that a fair proportion was filmed here! I recognised Tallinn old town and the nunnery at Pirita straight away.
Before I launch into a 46 year old belated review, a word about the director, Grigori Kozintsev who was born in 1905 in Kiev, now the Ukraine, into a pre-revolutionary middle class family. Grisha was active in experimental theatre in 1919 then went to Petrograd (as St Pete’s was after it was St Pete’s and before it was named Leningrad after The Great Leader who kicked the bucket in 1924). As a theatre director he was part of an avant-garde movement (at the time when the art of the USSR was as revolutionary as its politics) and contributed to the Salvation in the trousers section of the 1922 ‘Eccentric Manifesto.’ Eccentricism was a Russian movement indebted to both pop culture and the avant-garde. Its most obvious precursor was Dada. Kozintsev’s colleagues included Meyerhold, Eisenstein, Mayakovsky and Shosters. Quite a roll call. In 1923 he planned Hamlet as a pantomime performed by the Factory of the Eccentric Actor but it never happened. Hamlet as panto! Love it! Principal boys (will anyone except the Brits understand this?) are usually chosen to look good in tights … and “To be or not to be, that is the question!” begs the traditional audience response “No it isn’t” – “Yes, it is!“ and as for the ghost – “It’s behind you!” Postmodernism, eat your heart out!
The early films were strongly criticized by killjoy Soviet critics as being too German and expressionist - read ‘decadent’ even though this is before stodgy ‘Soviet realism’ became the official art form. The artist argued strongly against such comparisons and was unhappy until the end of his life (in 1973) about this, insisting that his cheerful experiments were essential after a revolution that had brought a great deal of destruction and pain and rendered serious ‘high’ culture redundant.
Such a start in the Soviet avant-garde often ended in tragedy. Of the bright young things that started out in Kozintsev’s circle in the 1920s, Mayakovsky committed suicide when under pressure in 1930, Meyerhold (aged 65) was brutally tortured and then shot in 1940 and the creative output of both Eisenstein and Shosters was seriously fettered by censorship. Kozintsev and fellow Ukrainian and ‘eccentrist’ Leonid Trauberg avoided the worst because of the political correctness of a film-trilogy about revolutionary hero Maxim (1935-1941), a trade-off blend of experiment and Soviet propaganda. There were enough of both to get it banned in the USA during the 1930s-1950s and win it the Stalin prize in 1941. Kozintsev and Trauberg’s last film together was Plain People (1946) that remained unreleased until 1958 and the Khrushchev thaw.
Kozintsev was a Shakes enthusiast. A whole chapter in his Shakespeare: Time and Conscience is devoted to Hamlet. Kozintsev explains how he cast some actors whose first language was not Russian (the Latvian Elsa Radzin-Szolkonis as Hamlet’s mother, the Ukrainian Stepan Oleksenko as Laertes) so as to include a variety of interpretations. Hamlet is played by the Russian actor Innokenty Smoktunovsky who looks like a traditional romantic Hamlet (handsome, fair hair, nice legs- so important when one is sporting tights) but has a very individual manner of acting, combining reserve and nervous intensity. Rather like Tony Perkins in Psycho.
Narva as Elsinore
Kozintsev’s stated aim was to "emphasize man’s essential dignity in a world of indignity” and to "’make visible the poetic atmosphere of the play." And he has done this par excellence. “Denmark's a prison” says our hero and the sombre Ivangorod castle that doubles for Elsinore and that faces off western Europe on the east bank of the river Narva, opposite Narva itself, the last town in Estonia, is perfect. Kozintsev goes on to say that he did not want too realistic a castle "because the ultimate prison for Hamlet was not made up of stone or iron, but of people” and crumbling Ivangorod, clearly past its sell-by date as a viable fortress fits this bill. We first see it when the drawbridge slams shut to the accompaniment of Shoster’s ominous music. Subtle it ain’t but it’s very effective. Inside the castle armed guards, simpering courtiers and long, dark hallways evoke an atmosphere of constriction and oppression. The ubiquitous statues of Claudius-Lenin clearly indicate that Hamlet’s Danish prison is symbolic of the Soviet one.
Hamlet lives in "an unweeded garden" amongst "things rank and gross in nature." He is played as a decent, idealist struggling against the rot of a decadent court “the time is out of joint. O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right!” His tragedy is outside of his control. I rather think that Shakes wanted it this way – Marcellus (Hammy pal) says quite unequivocally “Something is rotten in the state [of Denmark].” He does not say “Our master Hamlet dithereth like a good one” as suggested by Olivier’s Hamlet (1948) who introduced his version with "This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind" and where "the vicious mole of nature," i.e. our hero’s inherited personality, is the determinist reason for his behaviour. Luvvy Larry, however, regarded Smoktunovsky’s performance highly and we agree on this. I saw David Warner as Hamlet in 1965 at Stratford but all I remember was his University student scarf and wanting to slap the silly sod. I now read that Warner was the Hamlet of my generation but clearly I am out of joint too as the Russki version is (by a very long way) my preferred choice.
I was puzzled by Peter Brook’s opinion of this Hamlet. He praises Kozintsev’s clarity of vision “but the limitation lies in its style; when all is said and done, the Soviet Hamlet is post-Eisenstein realistic - thus super-romantic - thus, a far cry from essential Shakespeare - which is neither epic, nor barbaric, nor colourful, nor abstract nor realistic in any of our uses of the words." What? Shakes to me can be all things to all people - epic, barbaric, colourful, abstract, realistic – in English or Russian - what you Will!
Meanwhile, back in the castle, Shakespeare’s feeling for the little people is highlighted. Anastasiya Vertinska’s sensitive, beautiful, utterly isolated (her father uses her and is killed by her mad lover while her brother is away) Ophelia is lovely. The prison metaphor is applied to Ophelia with considerable force. She is first seen receiving a formal dancing lesson (stiff postures to sweet, tinkling Shoster’s music) from a strict teacher and she dances a reprise to the same, now discordant and disturbing, tune in her madness. Hamlet addresses Ophelia through the banisters of the stair well as if through a prison grid telling her five times in thirty lines to go to a nunnery and not breed sinners - clearly sex, not love, is uppermost in his mind and he is no kinder to her than the other men. The grisly farthingale that she is strapped into when dressing for her father’s funeral suggests an instrument of torture and, as she finally loses her reason she strips off her dress to reveal the iron corset beneath as she pushes her way through fawning lackeys into the maw of the castle. Her last scenes are poignant as she wanders in her shift – free of the cage but insane. There is an especially touching moment when a man at arms drapes his cloak around her – a touch of humanity amidst steel and pretence. Equally marvellous but not so gorgeous is Viktor Kolpakov’s gravedigger, swigging vodka and cheerfully scattering bones … There is no sympathy (I have never felt any either despite Tom Stoppard), however, for the weasely Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who collude with creepy king Claudius. Hammy’s mother, Gertrude, however, is sympathetic – she may be a vain, silly woman always looking at herself in a mirror but clearly she’s a caring mother who rallies to her boy when the chips are down. She makes a good end, unlike her husband who runs away when run through by Hamlet, squealing like a stuck pig and disappearing (like Ophelia) into the darkness of the castle … And the ghost!!!! What a spectacular spectre! It still sent shivers down the aging spine as it stalked the battlements to a jittery Shoster’s tune in full, elaborate 16th century plate armour. It’s filmed at a low angle against a blank lowering sky and seems gigantic – it is very clear that there is something very wrong even before the ghost opens its gob. “Angels and ministers of grace defend us!” Magnificent.
Russia is not in Europe?
I have always been puzzled by those who say, “Russia is not in Europe.” Well, if it’s not in Europe, where is it? Roughly 78% of the entire Russian population (about 110,000,000 people out of 141,000,000) lives west of the Ural mountain range that I was taught divided Europe from Asia. It’s not always culturally western Europe, of course, because Russia has been multi cultural – some say Eurasian- for centuries. This Hamlet, however, is seething with specifically western European heritage – the references to the visual arts come thick and fast – Velasquez, Botticelli, the Flemish-French tapestry La Dame à la licorne (The lady and the unicorn), John Everett Millais’ drowned Ophelia: they mingle with medieval musical clocks with figures– Krakow’s Jogellian University Collegium Maius clock of 1465 () and the Czech 1490 orloj astronomical clock in Prague Town Hall square –the sort of clock that was used to such terrific effect by Mussorgsky in Boris Gudonov.
Away from the cultural content, the contemporary context of the film is interesting. “Hamlet should have been a Russian, not a Dane,” exclaimed William Morris after reading War and Peace and Hamlet has always been popular in Russia – all that philosophising about free will, I suppose. Those of you who have ever spent a night with friends in a Russian kitchen will know what I mean. Stalin more or less banned Hamlet in 1941 – a recommendation if there ever was one – but it was resurrected very quickly after he had died and it was Kozintsev who directed the first post-Stalin production for the stage in 1954. His Hamlet was the most popular Soviet film of 1964 - the year that the reformer Nikita Khrushchev was replaced by Leonid Brezhnev and sixteen years of stagnation set in. Filmmaker Eleanor Rowe (Hamlet: A Window on Russia) tells how a Russian critic saw a "contemporary reverberation" in "the theme of moral obligation, the theme of conscience, the defence of the worth of man, the hatred of inhumanity, the responsibility for what happens in the world." But the green shoots that this film seems to represent – it must have been a very stupid censor indeed who did not see the comparison between Elsinore and Stalin’s Kremlin (that means ‘fortress’ by the way)- were soon quashed. In 1965 the Soviet authorities arrested literary critic, Andrei Sinyavsky, and translator, Yuly Daniel, and charged them with slandering the USSR abroad. Their works were satirical but hardly anti-Soviet; in his essay On Socialist Realism, for example, Sinyavsky (aka Abram Tertz) advocated nothing more radical than a return to the lively style of Vladimir Mayakovsky. Nonetheless, following a vicious press campaign, the pair was convicted at a show trial. Sinyavsky got seven years, and Daniel five, in a strict-regime labour camp.
The affair was meant as a signal of a stricter cultural line and as a warning for intellectuals to shut up. But it backfired. Sinyavsky and Daniel refused to kow tow, pleading not guilty and defending themselves vigorously in court. A public protest in Moscow against the arrests in 1965 was followed by a petition, an increase in open protest and samizdat, and, ultimately, the appearance of the Chronicle of Current Events, a clandestine periodical reporting on activities to expand civil freedom and political expression that appeared irregularly 1968 - 1983. The Sinyavsky-Daniel case is widely viewed as the spark that galvanized the dissident movement by raising the spectre of a return to Stalinism and convinced many intellectuals that it was futile to work within the system.
Maestra Baltica: Anu Tali
Music lovers should watch out for Maestra Baltica: Anu Tali conducts Baltic music. This TV programme is in English and is a great introduction to Anu Tali, whose career is now progressing very well indeed despite the early doubters who put her success down to a pretty face. I have commented for many years that bimbos just don’t do Shostakovich and they don’t conduct (and get rave reviews for it) the Mozarteumorchester (at the Salzburg festival), the London Sinfonietta and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment or the Deutsche Symphony Orchestra Berlin, so I feel very justified in saying – “I told you so.” All this plus, (with a lot of help from twin sis Kadri) running her very own Nordic Symphony Orchestra. I have followed Anu’s career avidly and I have never had a bum night in the concert hall with Ms T on the podium. The opening of Maestra Baltica finds the conductress perched on a rock by the Baltic Sea in a Russian Hamlet style pose and opining “The Baltic Sea is not the Mediterranean.” Later she introduces herself to the Munich Chamber Orchestra with “Aggressive, nasty and violent. That’s us: Estonians” and went on to drill them like a tough sarge in (Latvian) Pēteris Vasks’ – Tala Gaisma (Distant Light) – a violin concerto played with a great deal of bravura by Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto. The documentary shows conductor and orchestra in rehearsal and in performance of a very Balt programme with the Vasks and Action- Passion-Illusion a piece by Estonian composer Erkki Sven Tüür that I heard (and liked) in Tartu. Both pieces have an interesting sound “with archaic and violent rhythms” that, says Anu, are really all about rock music. I also liked the “I am fast” throwaway line about her tempi, she certainly played the fastest Mozart 40 that I have ever heard – it fair left the violinists mopping their brows. Anu’s final comment on her approach to life was “If you lose your dreams, you are dead.” Brava, maestra!
Russian pop videos are a real curiosity. They are quite often on the S&M side with impossibly glamorous, gorgeous women being horrible to men – turning into snakes, shoving them down stairs … Folk who have ever booked tickets for the Bolshoi or Kirov who have traveled to the theatre on the London tube hoping that the cast will be as advertised will appreciate that one night, I tuned into a Russian programme entitled Uma Thurman in the town of N. It turned out to be the 1994 Streisand tour and ‘the town of N’ was NYC … a rose by any other name … I was delighted, cracked a beer and settled in for a good time …
Bird Droppings from Estonia: Narva as Elsinore