Boris Godunov – November 2012

Experience: 6/10

By Pushkin, adapted by Adrian Mitchell

Directed by Michael Boyd

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Friday 23rd November 2012

We saw the Declan Donnellan production of this play with the Chekov International Festival Theatre company, in Russian with surtitles (May 2008). Reviewing my notes I realise that I’d grasped the gist and enjoyed the staging, but now I was looking to get more of the details of the story, in English – hooray! As it turns out, I was probably better off in some ways with the Russian version, as Pushkin’s play seems to be a rambling piece with no clear focus, and in English this deficiency became more apparent. However the performances were all very good and made up for some of the gaps in the writing, and I definitely understood the story better this time around. As it’s still in preview, it will undoubtedly get stronger and it will be interesting to see it again next year.

The opening scene with the conversation between the two princes was a good start. They explained the situation, and one of the princes, Shuiskii, had actually been sent to investigate the death of the crown prince Dmitry and report back to the Tsar, so he knew the facts of the case. His prophecy that Boris would keep refusing the crown until the people practically forced him to take it proved true, and these scenes were a nice counterpoint to the equivalent bits in Richard III. I felt I could have done with more of these two throughout the play, as their conversations were both informative and fun, but they were relatively minor characters.

Boris’s suffering did come across, though I wasn’t entirely clear about the causes. Some of the crowd scenes were a bit of a jumble, though we did laugh at the treatment of a baby. First it was told to be quiet and got hit when it wouldn’t stop crying, then they wanted it to cry to show Boris their suffering, and it was hit again and even thrown on the ground to make it cry. Nasty stuff, but it was funny at the time.

Grigory’s wooing of the Polish princess Maryna was good fun. Lucy Briggs-Owen was clearly not interested in declarations of love, and his acting like a wimp didn’t attract her at all. There was enough of a change in Grigory’s behaviour to make sense of her change of heart, and I enjoyed her performance as much as those of the two princes.

The set mainly consisted of an open balcony at the back; there was a forest of coats hanging under this, and these were taken by characters as they came on stage so they gradually disappeared. There were ladders up to the central section of the balcony, and a large map of Russia hung in front of it for one scene. Otherwise, the furniture was brought on and off as needed, and there was only one use of a trapdoor as I recall. That’s it for now – so many plays and so little time.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

3 comments on “Boris Godunov – November 2012

  1. Peter Serres says:

    I saw this on the previous Wednesday and would be interested to know if the production “grew” over time. Agreed that the Russian production was sharper.(when I saw it as part of Brighton Festival, assuming it to be the same one). Buckets of water used as a form of water torture ring any bells?

    The Polish princess Marina is a cold-blooded realist being hawked around for political gain for dynastic reasons. She is not in the least interested in Dimitri as a man – only the power that will come from gaining the crown.

    Music lovers have a bonus in approaching this play if they have any familiarity with the Mussorgski opera, which plants a sense of the overall trajectory of the plot. A “road map” is very useful. I think you are slightly hard on Pushkin’s play-writing. Imagine how hard it would be watching Henry VI, Part 3 if you didn’t have any background to the Wars of the Roses. Perhaps the cast lacked this and were consequently at a disadvantage in projecting the story line to the audience.

    Nice to see in the case of Gethin Antony what someone from Game of Thrones can actually do when they don’t have a rubbish script.

  2. I have seen Henry VI part 3 without familiarity with the Wars of the Roses, although as it was the ESC’s conflation of parts 1,2 and 3 into two parts, perhaps it’s not a fair comparison. Given the ESC’s excellent storytelling, I don’t remember having any real difficulty. Similarly with MIchael Boyd’s productions over the years, but by then my knowledge was greater.
    From the director’s talk we learned that this play hasn’t been done much at all in Russia – Declan Doinnellan got away with it as a mad foreigner – so we’ve done quite well to see two good productions. And since Pushkin’s own production was shelved due to a hostile reception of the publication of the play text, perhaps he would have adjusted the script if he’d had the opportunity to see it performed? I suspect though that he was relying on a Russian audience knowing its own history and filling in the blanks, as you’ve been able to do from the opera.

    • Peter Serres says:

      Interesting thought that Pushkin might have revised the play if he’d actually seen a production. He had a chequered career which included a period of internal exile, heavy-handed censorship and an early death in a ridiculous duel. And yet, he seems to be known in Russia in a similar way to Shakespeare for us. Famous lines may be familiar even to people who have no idea of the source or context. Masha in Three Sisters obsesses “An oak tree beside the main / And round that oak a golden chain”. Guess who? (Prologue to a poem – Ruslan and Ludmilla). I’m quoting the translation that made it stick in my memory, long ago when I had no idea what it was.

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