Boris Godunov – January 2013

Experience: 8/10

By Pushkin, adapted by Adrian Mitchell

Directed by Michael Boyd

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Friday 11th January 2013

This has come on a lot since last November. The story-telling was clearer overall (although not as good as The Orphan Of Zhao) and they’d either managed to make the plot more connected or our greater familiarity helped us handle the storyline’s somewhat chaotic nature. I suspect a lot of the improvement was down to the performances as I saw a lot more detail tonight in most of the major parts, and there was a stronger sense of energy and drive through most of the play. I was more engaged with the characters than before, and some aspects of the staging which I had found distracting before, such as the use of the hanging coats at the back of the stage, weren’t so prominent from our position round the side tonight, allowing me to focus more on the plot.

The opening scene, where the inhabitants of the city rushed off to beg Boris Godunov to be their Tsar, was fine, although again it helped that we knew what was going on. Vorotynskii and Shuiskii, the aristocrats left in the city, explained things nicely, and I noticed that James Tucker seemed to be giving Shuiskii a colder, creepier edge; we were on the other side last time and mainly saw his back, so it may just have been our better angle that allowed us to see his performance more clearly. The baby battering sequence was a bit funny at first, but I found it impossible to laugh second time around. I saw more of the details in this crowd scene, undoubtedly a combination of more performances and prior knowledge.

I noticed that the first scene with the old monk took a while to connect up with what we’d already heard, and I found myself contrasting this with the superb connectivity of Orphan, where the scenes flowed together almost organically. Fortunately the young monk, Grigory (Gethin Anthony), brought up the subject of the murder of the young Tsarevich, Dmitry, and we were back on track. I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on with the younger monk who encouraged Grigory to launch his career as pretender to the throne in a later scene; he appeared in the scene after that as well, apparently criticizing Grigory as being led by the devil, so I can only assume he was playing both ends against the middle. Perhaps the meddling monk is a regular feature of Russian literature – they certainly turn up in droves in Shakespeare – but this one was under-explained for me.

Still, we were soon into the fun and games of Grigory’s escape to Lithuania. At a tavern in a frontier town Grigory turned up in the company of two monks-on-the-make. They drank plenty, he stuck with water, and when a couple of guards turned up looking for a runaway monk, Grigory took advantage of a general state of illiteracy to point the finger at one of his travelling companions. This was understandable, since the chief guard had made it clear that when the warrant said ‘arrest’ it meant ‘arrest and hang’; for someone who couldn’t read, he was remarkably good at reading between the lines. When his ruse was discovered, Grigory had to make a quick escape, aided by the tavern’s barmaid, and so to freedom and his new life as Dmitry.

Meanwhile Boris was having a tough time as Tsar. He did his best for the people, fed them when there was famine, and rebuilt their houses when they burned down, but did they thank him for it? Not a bit! They blamed him for the fire and kept on grumbling, ungrateful sods.

His daughter was having a tough time too. Her fiancé died before their weeding, and she spent her time carrying his portrait around with her and mourning his loss, excessively. This was represented by her character walking round the stage holding on to a large picture frame on the other side of which was an actor dressed up as her fiancé. They walked around for a bit, then as I recall the fiancé actor left the stage and she simply held the frame to remind us of her obsession. Her lines from the text seemed to be drastically reduced, so it wasn’t entirely clear first time round what was going on. Boris made a reference to her situation, so we did find out, but even knowing this I found her character rather irrelevant without her lines.

Perhaps they made this choice to concentrate our attention on Boris’s young son Fyodor. Even though the real lad was much older, they showed him here as a young boy, about the age of the deceased Tsarevich, Dmitry, which meant that the boy kept reminding Boris of his guilty secret. When we first saw Fyodor, he was up a step ladder painting red blobs onto a huge map of Russia to represent towns. (Geography lessons were much more sedate in my day.) Boris was pleased to see his heir taking his future responsibilities seriously, but later, after discussing the news of the pretender in Poland, Boris saw the boy again at the back of the stage with a red gash on his neck. As he’d just been going over the details of Dmitry’s death with Shuiskii, the connection was clear, but it turned out to be his own son who’d simply had an accident with the paint brush. They used this crossover again, but this was the most powerful occasion, and according to the text, this was where Boris made more than a passing reference to Henry IV with the line “Oh heavy is the crown worn by a Tsar”.

The story then moved to Poland, where Grigory was winning over the various groups whose support he needed to make a challenge for the Tsardom. These included the Church, disaffected Russians, the Poles, Cossacks and even a poet! Everyone was captivated by the young ‘prince’, except for his potential bride, Maryna (Lucy Briggs-Owen). She wasn’t just playing hard-to-get either; she knew her own worth, perhaps too much, and she wouldn’t settle for anything less than a Tsar. Concerned that she didn’t love him for himself, he decided to come clean and she was appalled. Love was not on the agenda for her; he had to have rank, even pretend rank, or she wasn’t interested. At her response he decided to man up and tell her where to shove it; ironically the ideal wooing tactic for Maryna, as it showed that he could cut it as a serious pretender to the throne. Women!

There were some scenes back in Moscow concerning apparent miracles done by the dead Dmitry and the attitudes of the common people, and then we had a few battle scenes where the horses were actors; when Grigory’s horse died under him on the battlefield it was actually an actor whose back he’d been standing on. Boris then became a monk just before his death – a tradition for Russian Tsars at that time – and his general Basmanov decided to change allegiance and support Grigory. The play finished with the announcement of Grigory as the new Tsar Dmitry, though there was still a lot of tension in the situation.

These final scenes were quite short, with a lot of rushing about followed by quieter moments. The whole performance felt a little uneven, but at least I did follow the story better this time. Overall I liked the staging; it was relatively simple and flowing, and created the locations effectively. I’m still not sure about the coats hanging at the back, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. The fountain (for the wooing scene with Maryna) was made of actors holding bowls and jugs; it was a nice idea but they couldn’t sustain it, so the fountain headed off stage before the end of the scene, which was a bit bizarre.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

2 comments on “Boris Godunov – January 2013

  1. Peter Serres says:

    Xenia’s loss of her affianced functions as an ominous hint that Boris may not leave a successor. Both she and her brother are put to death (offstage?) at the end of the play. All part and parcel of the ruthlessness of Russia ( the Wild East, as the book by Martin Sixsmith has it). The episode is very short and may not have fully registered for you. Hard for me to judge a production “innocent” of my previous knowledge of the history (and the Mussorgsky opera). The RSC programme did its best to fill in the historical background, I thought.

    Ultimately, it can be argued that Boris is not the main character at all and that the true tragedy is that of the misfortunes of Mother Russia, lurching from the aftermath of Ivan the Terrible to the rise of the Romanovs (via a period of Polish rule through Dimitri as puppet). Poland being a Catholic country, the Marina marriage was a highly dangerous threat to the Russian Orthodox church. Sorry, another history lesson. But that’s why it matters so much.

  2. Interesting points, thank you. From the director’s talk I gathered that the Russians have a craving for strong leadership which has lead them down some strange paths, at least from the point of view of an established democracy. It helps to explain the attraction of Stalin amongst other things.

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