“Everywhere they curse the name of Boris”
The instinctive reaction when one hears of a production of a lesser-known work by a well-known writer tends to be one of healthy scepticism, as one waits to find out whether there was a good reason for its relative obscurity. But sometimes there are mitigating circumstances and Alexander Pushkin’s 1825 play Boris Godunov – receiving its first ever professional production in English here at the Swan Theatre – sufficiently provoked the ire of the state censors so that it was 30 years after his death before it was first approved and even then, continued political pressure ensured its limited impact.
The uncensored version was finally translated by Adrian Mitchell, premiered at Princeton in 2007 and selected now by Michael Boyd to mark his swansong as AD at the RSC, as part of the ensemble-led globetrotting A World Elsewhere season. And one can see why the Russian authorities wouldn’t have taken too kindly to Pushkin’s satire, indeed still to this day, as wrapped up in the tale of men lying, cheating and murdering their way to become Tsar in the late 1590s is an excoriating indictment of the Russian ruling elite. And what Boyd teases out in this fast-moving version, is that such autocratic leadership is seemingly endemic in this country and so its resonances play out right up to the current day.
Lloyd Hutchinson is an exhilarating presence as the titular Boris, whose increasingly wearied Ulster tones show the weight of a wrongfully seized crown as rumours swell that he murdered the old Tsar’s young heir Dmitry to secure his own place on the throne; Gethin Anthony has a striking energy as the monk Grigory who later grasps the chance to imitate Dmitry and manipulate his way into the hearts and mind of the people and thus grab power for himself, his quicksilver shifts in mood revealing a thrilling emotional instability; and there’s great work from Lucy Briggs-Owen’s pragmatically covetous Polish princess and from James Tucker and Joe Dixon as key courtiers who never allow anything as small as significant political differences to their leader to get in the way of their own advancement.
Boyd keeps his staging to a minimum on the thrust stage of the Swan, which highlighted his main conceit of the various costumes from different Russian ages hanging at the back of the stage, the players slowly working their way through the wardrobe to reach the Putin-inspired suits of the final scene. And this motif of the changing clothes also allowed for the production’s most striking moment in its evocation of battle-scenes through the beating of coats on the floor, surprisingly effective in its stirring simplicity and indicative of the extremely tight ensemble. John Woolf’s music has a similar unfussy quality that keeps it hauntingly moving and fans of stage gore won’t be disappointed with some grisly moments.
I was kindly invited as part of a bloggers’ event which meant I was lucky enough to get a Q+A session at the end of the show which was lots of fun and highly illuminating in a number of areas: the reality of the experience of actors in a rep season, the relationship with the audience in the open space of the Swan (which brought to mind something of the groundling experience at the Globe for me), the Shakespearean connections that many others were able to draw with Pushkin’s work, and the interesting note that this wasn’t intended to be a comedy but rather that the black humour came naturally through the process of putting it together. Boris Godunov is indeed funnier than one might expect but it also contains two powerful studies of the corrosive effects of chasing power which are superbly brought to life by Hutchinson and Anthony.