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

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 ilovetheatre.me

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe – December 2011

6/10

By CS Lewis, adapted by Adrian Mitchell

Music by Shaun Davey

Directed by Dale Rooks

Company: Chichester Festival Youth Theatre

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Tuesday 27th December 2011

This is the first Chichester Festival Youth Theatre production we’ve seen, and it’s not a bad standard overall. They had the advantage of a Simon Higlett set, which worked really well and looked fantastic. The opening set had the façade of a building, with a couple of flying buttress platforms to either side; between them they allowed for all sorts of rooms, and a twisting dance through lots of doors. The central double doors became the doors of the wardrobe, and each time the children went through them, the two halves of the set opened up and were swung round – good old elbow grease – to reveal a magical winter set, with two snow-covered slopes, frosty trees, etc. Other locations were simply set up with a table and a few chairs, while the White Witch’s front garden was chock-a-block with frozen statues.

With a large cast, there were plenty of winter sprites about the place, and all the usual characters for this magical story. I was a little disappointed with Aslan at first; he was played by three young lads, two of them holding shields on either side for the body, while the front one held the face and mane and did the talking. Once I got used to it though, I thought it worked very well. We particularly liked Mr Tumnus (Joel Banks), Mr and Mrs Beaver (Sam Peake & Alice O’Hanlon) and the White Witch (Georgina Briggs – very good evil laugh), though there was plenty of talent on show all round.

The performance started with a group mime of the evacuees’ train journey, and I was finding it a bit dull until the train got going. The children with their suitcases were all lined up across the stage at this point, and as the train whistle blew, the suitcase of the lad in front let out a puff of smoke, while the suitcases behind gradually started to move like train wheels – very effective, and it got me laughing as well. The rest of the audience seemed a bit quiet though, and I did feel they could have responded more – they were doing enough on stage to deserve it. Even so, I enjoyed myself and had the mandatory sniffles in the later stages, so not a bad end to the year’s theatregoing.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Marat/Sade – November 2011

4/10

By: Peter Weiss, English version by Geoffrey Skelton, verse adaptation by Adrian Mitchell

Directed by: Anthony Neilson

Venue: RST

Date: Friday 4th November 2011

I’m not fond of protest plays at the best of times, and even though this play was set circa the French revolution, it certainly wasn’t the best of times for us tonight. The underlying intention of shocking the audience into a new view of the world and events never seems to succeed with me, and I find myself expanding my understanding more through sympathetic treatments of difficult subjects or through humour rather than polemics.

The original production, put on by the RSC in the early 1960s, was a response to events at that time, expressing the frustration and anger at the way western society appeared to have failed to bring about a better world for all. There was still social injustice, war, hunger, poverty, ignorance, and many a bra was as yet unburned. Coupled with this discontent was the belief that a better world was possible, a peaceful world where all needs were met and everyone lived a happy and fulfilled life. Well, we were all young once. The older generation, having fought and lived through at least one world war (some had managed two) were perhaps more content with a spell of peace and the end of rationing, but hold the slippers and cocoa for a while, as we take a trip to a lunatic asylum somewhere in France during the reign of Napoleon.

The set was fairly simple, but contained some ingredients of menace. The balcony above the stage at the back held the musicians and some chairs for the on stage audience – the director of the asylum, his ‘guest’ (a very attractive young lady) and several other people, including an Arab gentleman. Below this balcony was a row of security barriers, the sort with alternating bars; these worked like revolving doors. There were four ladders arching out from the sides of the stage – two each side- and connecting with the circle balconies. And above all this was a white circular thing which was lit by a flickering light from time to time – I don’t really know what that was about.

The main piece of furniture was the bath that Marat is killed in – this mainly rose up through the floor, but was wheeled off at one point and brought back on again later. Marat sat in it for long periods – his skin must have been so wrinkly – working on his laptop. There was a loo at one point, and various props such as buckets full of pig entrails, mobile phones, dildos, etc. The costumes were modern, and a lot of the references were contemporary too – hijabs, Marat filming his terrorist manifesto, tasering a prisoner, etc.

The idea of the play is that the Marquis de Sade, who has been locked up in the lunatic asylum for being seriously unpleasant, is putting on a play about the death of Marat with the help of his fellow inmates. The asylum’s professed purpose is to help these poor lunatics, so artistic endeavours are encouraged, and the director and guests are attending the performance along with members of the public (us) to see the results.

My first difficulty with this production was that I couldn’t make out the dialogue very well. Some bits were fine – Jasper Britton as de Sade was good, and one or two others were usually OK – but I lost large chunks of the story, particularly Charlotte Corday’s bits. That meant I couldn’t engage with the characters, and so I lost interest fairly early on. Marat and Corday’s stories were interspersed with the story of the lunatic asylum, and in many ways that was the more interesting, and disturbing, part of the evening.

Every inmate had a mobile phone, and when any of them transgressed seriously enough, they received a text message from the director. All well and good, you may think, but then the creepy bit happened. The offender would kneel on one of the walkways, take out a black hood from a pouch in their trousers, and put it on, They then had to stay in that position for several minutes as a punishment. And the scariest thing  was the way all the inmates accepted this treatment – what had they been subjected to beforehand to make them so compliant?

The tasering was also uncomfortable to watch. It was a part of the ‘show’ in which de Sade starred. He was expounding his philosophy at the time, while also being chained up and then tasered by the inmate playing Charlotte Corday. At one point, she stopped briefly to have her picture taken beside her ‘victim’, with her thumbs up. All of these images evoked the gratuitous violence of the torture camps and prisoners of war, but the point was hard to fathom. Comments were made at the post-show discussion about the public being de-sensitised to violence, but Steve and I have probably seen more horrific images when we were growing up, courtesy of WWI, Vietnam, etc., images that just wouldn’t be shown nowadays. And in the time of the play, just after the French Revolution and in Napoleon’s reign, people regularly saw acts of extreme cruelty and violence which would drive most of us insane.

My problems with using these images on stage are twofold. Firstly, I know it’s a play, so if things get too bad I protect myself by either looking away or by disengaging with the performance. It’s not real, and what matters to me is the emotional impact such depictions can have if used wisely. In fact, there’s often a greater impact when the images aren’t so graphic – less is more. The other problem is my awareness of how often images in the media have been faked, specifically to generate a response of disgust or horror. After many years, I’m not so easily hooked by this sort of sensationalism, which again undercuts any impact the production is hoping to have. In the tasering case, there’s also the difficulty that de Sade opted for the experience, so although Jasper Britton’s suffering was horrifying real-looking, I still wasn’t as affected as the creative team may have intended.

Having heard some stories about the nature of the audience participation, I was also braced for more revolting objects being thrown amongst us than actually happened, which was sort of a relief, but then that expectation may have also kept me from being engaged with the performance – not very helpful. We do our best to avoid this sort of foreknowledge, but it didn’t work this time as the fuss was too high profile – damn the Daily Mail!

So now for the good bits – this won’t take long. Apart from Jasper Britton, who’s always watchable, I liked Golda Rosheuvel very much. Her lunatic act was heartbreakingly believable; she seemed to be listening to voices in her own head, and her occasional claps punctuated the action very cleverly, while still being a sign of her madness. Of course, not everyone in the asylum was there because they were mentally ill, so some of the inmates looked pretty normal, if somewhat scared, but there were also one or two false notes struck in the madness department which let the side down.

One of the other inmates had a sex obsession, and this was played with great gusto by Lanre Malaolu. He was so distracted by his lustful urges that he could hardly get his lines out, apart from a couple of minutes when he’d relieved himself by humping the stage. I also liked Christopher Ettridge’s Director Coulmier; whenever the inmates’ play became too satirical, he was quick to point out how much better things were under Napoleon. At the end, he also takes his clothes off and has some words scrawled on his body. I couldn’t make out if his craziness at the end was meant to imply that he was also crazy, or that the whole world was full of crazy people, or what, but it was an amusing ending.

The music was also good – kept my feet tapping – but despite the cast’s best efforts I just didn’t enjoy this very much. I can understand the desire to bring the play up-to-date, and make it more relevant to today’s world, as well as getting away from any memories of the original production, but I found this approach too bitty. From the post-show we learned that the cast had worked on their characters for the first four weeks, without looking at the text. They’d only turned to that when they ‘knew who they were’, and then had four weeks working with the text. From my perspective, treating a play with such disrespect and focusing on aspects of the performance that aren’t actually going to come across to an audience as readily as the dialogue seems to explain the lacklustre nature of this production.

There was also a very short actress, Lisa Hammond, who played the herald. She had a motorised wheelchair, and was a sort of mistress of ceremonies, a role she shared with de Sade. At one point, she turned to the audience and spun a sob story about being short of money. Getting down into the stalls, she even asked one chap in the audience for money, and apparently he gave it to her! Twenty quid! Nothing much came of it, so I’ve no idea why that was included. At the post-show we found out she varies what she needs the money for. Tonight it was food, but it’s also been shoes and other things.

I might be willing to see another production of this play in the future, but it would probably have to take a different approach to tonight’s version. We couldn’t get a copy of the text – all sold out – so I can’t fill in the blanks and gauge the quality of the play itself. I suspect there’s a lot more there than was on show tonight, despite the blow job and de Sade’s wide-ranging wardrobe.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me