Saturday, 8 December 2012

Theatre review: Boris Godunov

Thanks to the World Shakespeare Festival, 2012 has shown us how other countries interpret his plays, but for the Winter season in the Swan the RSC takes its turn to play host in the foreign exchange, staging three international classics that can be seen as Shakespeare's contemporaries - either in when they were written, or the historical period they deal with. Alexander Pushkin deliberately intended to take inspiration from Shakespeare in the way he put Boris Godunov together, and certain moments do mirror scenes from his plays. Adrian Mitchell's verse translation also occasionally references particular well-known Shakespearean lines. So we open with echoes of Julius Caesar as Boris Godunov (Lloyd Hutchinson) is repeatedly offered the Russian throne by the people, and keeps turning it down. It'll take a month of pleading but Godunov will accept the position of Tsar.

Following Ivan the Terrible's reign, Godunov had been adviser, and de facto regent, to the mentally disabled Tsar Fyodor I. On his death the succession is muddy, so the man who's been in power in everything but name now assumes it for real despite not being a blood relative. But the reason Godunov's path to power was clear is that the immediate heir, Dmitry, died at the age of 7, and Godunov is suspected if having had a part in it. (Apparently history views this as unlikely, but for Pushkin's purposes he's guilty.)

This is the crux of the story as Godunov's rule is an unpopular one, and when the young monk Grigory (the very sexy Gethin Anthony - I've never watched Game of Thrones but thanks to the internet's priorities I was aware of his nipples work) claims to be the still-living Prince Dmitry, Poland helps him raise an army to topple the Tsar. Using the events of the 1600s to comment on Tsar Nicholas I in the 1820s, the play is here also given a resonance to Putin's present-day Russia, and Tom Piper's costume designs come from all three time periods, roughly jumping forwards in time as the play goes on. Variously described as a "comedy about tyranny" or a "romantic tragedy," Michael Boyd's production aims to take the more darkly comic route out of these options; it's not an approach I thought entirely paid off.

I find Hutchinson quite a broad performer, and his attempts to laugh off Godunov's early bloodthirsty rants neither succeeded in getting laughs from the mugging, nor really set the Tsar up as a tragic villain in the Shakespearean mould. I think the play itself is partly to blame as it spends less time on the title character than it does with his charismatic rival (having grown up in a monastery, we've seen Grigory long for something less "safe" and predictable, so we feel like we understand his reckless nature better,) but as both the rebellion and his own bad health close in on Boris, I was wishing for the doom-laden intensity of a Richard III or Macbeth seeing their end approach, and not quite getting it. Boyd elects to play this scene oddly understated, which doesn't help.

The rest of the ensemble are strong, and I thought the production's best moments were between Grigori/Dmitry and Maryna, the Polish princess he falls in love with, almost at the expense of his campaign. The always-interesting Lucy Briggs-Owen brings a quirkily brusque manner to the princess who sticks with her "prince" even - perhaps even more so - after he confesses he's an impostor. Anthony and Briggs-Owen's scenes have a feel of Petruchio and Katherina crossed with the Macbeths, an unusual but memorable combination. Boris Godunov marks Michael Boyd's last time in the director's chair as Artistic Director of the RSC1. One of the trademarks of Boyd's era, the big dance number halfway through the show, sort of gets a return for his final production: As the false Dmitry charms the foreign courts, we get a Jane Austen-style gossiping-while-dancing scene.

Overall I found Boyd's production better at the storytelling than the emotional side. The story's machinations kept me interested, but I never felt too invested in the characters, or in who gets to be Tsar in the end (both Hutchinson and Anthony can be rather shouty at times.) I'm glad I caught the Russian classic that I'd previously known nothing of bar the title until now; the production as a whole isn't great, but it is Godunov for me (ba-dum-tish.)

Boris Godunov by Alexander Pushkin in a version by Adrian Mitchell is booking in repertory until the 30th of March at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Running time: 2 hours straight through

1however the long advance periods the company works in means despite Gregory Doran having been in the top job for a couple of months now, we'll still be seeing work programmed by Boyd for almost another year


  1. God spare us from theatre bloggers !

    1. I know right? And a theatre blog is the last place you'd expect to find one, so it must have been such a crushing blow for you.