Boris Godunov, by Alexander Pushkin, translated by Adrian Mitchell and directed by Michael Boyd for the RSC, the Swan Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon, 2nd January 2012
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s A World Elsewhere season follows on from 2012’s World Shakespeare Festival and is the introduction to Gregory Doran’s Artistic Directorship. As such, the start of his reign as Shakespeare Tsar looked good: resisting Bardolotry by introducing great works of world drama (Chinese, Russian, German) to the Stratford stage. Although of course, for obvious marketing reasons (as is the case with all the RSC seasons) links with ‘the Bard’ are highlighted. In this case, ‘the Swan Theatre premieres a trilogy of newly-adapted international plays, in repertoire from November, exploring what was going on in the rest of the world during Shakespeare’s lifetime.‘ However, A World Elsewhere has not been without its controversy, especially around the ethnic composition of the season’s ensemble cast. Flagged up as ‘an ethnically diverse company’ (p.1) in the programme notes, the casting of white actors in most of the major roles across all three productions, and the British East Asians to minor roles, especially in the Chinese play, led to allegations of institutionalised racism. In fact, the reason the RSC gave for casting so few East Asian actors in this season was that they would have to act in non-Chinese plays. Which is strange, as the central figure of the Russian play was of Tatar or Mongol origin, a point the translation made much of, and its rebels came from across Central Asia, making the BEA actors closer in ethnicity to most of the characters than the white British…
Boris Godunov, the first in this trilogy of world classics that I saw, is a translation of Pushkin’s 1825 play about the rise and fall of one of Ivan the Terrible’s Oprichniki, or secret police, who takes the regency during the short reign of Ivan’s ‘cretin’ son, and is rumoured to have murdered the rightful heir to the throne, the boy Prince Dmitry. Boris is challenged by a bored young monk, Grigory Otrepiev, who, on learning that he would be the same age as the dead prince had he lived and has the same colour eyes (brown!), decides to leave the cloisters and set himself up as pretender to the throne with the help of Russia’s old enemies, Lithuania and Poland. Pushkin, the programme tells us, deliberately chose ‘ a historical period that resembled that of Shakespeare’s History plays, a lead character that echoes the guilt-ridden Macbeth and a cunning Richard III, and a style and structure that juxtaposes comic scenes with the main action of the tragedy’ (p.9).
The director Michael Boyd goes on to suggest that this is because, like Shakespeare, Pushkin was attempting to avoid the censorship of an authoritarian state by cloaking his satire in borrowed, ancient robes. He was not exactly successful, and the play was barely performed during his lifetime ‘because it was deemed unseemly for men of the church to be depicted in the theatre’ (Julie Curtis, p.12). The programme neatly makes a contemporary parallel of apparent respect for the church being used to silence political dissent under a despotic rular by illustrating this with pictures of Pussy Riot, the punk-girl band convicted of ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’ after singing an obscenely lyric-ed, anti-Putin song in a Moscow cathedral (pp.12-13). And, for those who hadn’t bought a programme, the small music ensemble opened the play with a traditional Russian folk-tune sabotaged by a grunge bassline…
So did this production translate to the RSC stage? Yes and no. The mise-en-scène was clever. Non-realist, Absurdist even, the battle scenes were enacted by thrashing coats to the ground, and a cavalry charge by actors mounting the backs of their fellows. The loveplot centred on a midnight meeting in a garden: four actors swung forward from the balcony and poured water from white enamel ewers into basins balanced on heads of another four actors below. ‘The fountain!’ Grigory announced, helpfully. In order to underscore the political dimension of the production, the actors stepped in and out of costumes hanging from hooks at the back of the stage, making this not a timeless production but one that spoke simultaneously to different times. From Renaissance furs, through early nineteenth century tails and Regency dresses, they ended up in 21C suits and ties, illustrating Boris Godunov’s continuing relevance – although I have to admit, the softly spoken, slightly cuddly Lloyd Hutchinson as Boris was rather more of a Gordon Brown than a Vladimir Putin. Now trying to be a good and fair leader, fate and the haunting of his past sin conspired against him. Reduced to a shivering wreck by the memory of the murdered prince, he stumbled into the audience and buried his head on the nearest shoulder. The woman patted his arm reassuringly, clearly unrepulsed by this man who had had a child murdered in cold blood… (For the record, the historic Boris probably did no such thing.)
Gudonov’s children, Ksenya (Joan Iyiola) and Fyodor (Christian Leith) were interesting touches, further humanising the central character. Ksenya, in perpetual mourning for her betrothed, a foreign prince she had never met, held his empty picture frame throughout, at one point dancing with his imagined image (Sui Hun Li). Little Fyodor seemed to reappear to his father as the apparition of the cut-throated Prince Dmitry until he and the audience realised that the child had been playing with red paint and a paintbrush. Yet this was billed as a comedy about tyranny, so the boy’s stunt brought a laugh. The fickle crowd added to the satire, and Susan Momoko Hingley, as the woman bashing her baby, first for crying in times of joy then again for not crying when the crown mourned, was very funny indeed.
The late Adrian Mitchell’s script was brilliant, crackling with acerbic wit and, at times, hilarious doggerel, such as when the two drunken monks coerced the young runaway Pretender, Grigory, to speak in very bad rhyming couplets, much against his better judgement. However, the dialogue was rarely delivered with the energy of the text – a directorial decision perhaps rather than a lack of nuance on the part of the cast, particularly as the same actors bristled with energy the next night in Doran’s The Orphan of Zhao. Michael Boyd’s Boris Godunov was a concept driven production, entirely in keeping with Eastern European theatre traditions he trained in yet, unlike many Eastern European productions of the classics, not quite able to match its visual ideas with its verbal delivery. This was because, although adapted into contemporary and often colloquial English by Mitchell, the lines were mostly delivered in the careful, measured tones of traditional Shakespeare-speak: a little too slow to get the laughs, a little too enunciated to bring out any emotional nuance. Grigory, by contrast, shouted a lot. Again, this declamatory delivery of ALL his lines seemed to be on purpose, perhaps with Boyd intending to set him apart as the charismatic and passionate young rebel. In reality, the overall effect was that the dialogue was either sluggish or shouty, with the exception of Lucy Briggs-Owen as the slightly bonkers, power-heady Polish princess love-interest, Joan Iyiola as the mournful Ksenya Godunov and James Tucker as the deliciously slippery Prince Shuiskin. Likewise, although the Swan’s thrust stage allows for a real sense connection between audience and actor, and although the production utilised the space fully, with characters appearing amongst the audience, the more agile of the cast climbing up ladders into the galleries, the lack of direct eye-contact throughout meant that the fourth-wall was replaced with what I term the ‘goldfish bowl’. It was only in the final moments that the audience was called on to respond as if we were the Moscovite crowd, complicit in the endless cycle of tyranny, and by that time it was too late – instead of rapturously applauding the reign of Grigory, we simply politely applauded the end of the show. So despite its fine visuals, the pacing and its lack of connection to the audience, allowed its energy to seep away, so that ultimately it was never entirely engaging as comedy, tragedy or satire.
As an afterthought, I wonder whether, if Boyd had gone for Boris Godunov as a satire on the last British election, it may have hit home more effectively?!