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

Boris Godunov – May 2008

8/10

By Alexander Pushkin

Directed by Declan Donnellan

Company: Cheek By Jowl

Venue: Barbican Theatre

Date: Saturday 17th May 2008

I knew nothing about this play except for its name, and that it was Russian. It was also being done by Russian actors, in Russian. Given my experiences during the RSC’s Complete Works festival, it’s surprising I chose to go to this, but we do like Cheek by Jowl’s work – the Twelfth Night had been exceptionally good. So here I was, knowing nothing of what was to come, but looking forward to a new experience.

Our seats were on the Barbican stage. Actually, the temporary seating ran down both sides of the stage, the former auditorium was screened off, and the acting space was a long narrow platform sandwiched between the two. Still, I can always claim I’ve been on stage at the Barbican, if I ever feel the need.

As we came in, there was a church service in progress at the far end of the platform, to our left as we sat down. Russian Orthodox – lots of beards, incense and chanting. To our right, a man sat at a table, tapping away on a battered old typewriter. I took this to be Pushkin, writing the masterpiece we were about to see, but that wasn’t quite it. The chanting continued for some time, and then the lights dimmed as two characters began the play. Dressed in modern suits, they were talking about Boris Godunov having killed the heir to the throne, Dmitry, and how the people would want Boris to become their next ruler. For those familiar with Shakespeare, this was home ground. I was a little confused by the way one of the characters, a prince, was also interacting with Boris as he told the other chap what he’d seen of the heir’s murder. He and Boris played some game with their hands over the crown, which sat on a small throne between the church area and the table. Then Boris removed the crown, and sat on the throne himself. After that, he became colder towards the prince, but I don’t know whether this was based on the prince’s own description of events or a parallel piece of action. Anyway, it was clear that these two characters, both members of the royal family, consider themselves to have better claims to the throne than ambitious Boris. However, the people love him, so it’s Boris’s crown.

After the church stuff is all cleared away, the man at the typewriter starts to talk. Apparently he’s a monk who’s lived through Ivan the Terrible’s reign, as well as his son Feodor’s, and he’s been writing a history of the events so that the Russian people will know about their past. There’s a young lad with him. He came to the monastery as a boy and looks after the older man, despite having one arm shorter than the other – he holds his left arm awkwardly. When the monk gives him the history, telling him to carry on the work, he decides to run away, and possibly plans to become Czar himself – both Steve and I were a bit unsure on this point. The surtitles were very useful, but it was easy to miss a line or two when we were caught up in the action. Anyway, the young man ends up at the Russian/Lithuanian border, and is nearly caught by the officers of the law, who have a written description of the man they’re looking for. Being able to read, he lies about the description to try and throw suspicion on someone else as the runaway, but this other chap remembers enough of his learning to give an alternative version of the officer’s orders, and the young man has to fight to escape. It’s not exactly clear what happens. He seemed to give the officer a jab in the neck, so that he could hardly talk, but then the action shifted to the next scene.

From here the play really began to hook me. The young man pretends to be Dmitry, the deceased heir, and for all sorts of reasons, people believe him. Most importantly, the kings of neighbouring countries choose to support him, and are prepared to provide troops to help him regain ‘his’ throne. Disaffected Russians also flock to him, and there’s a lovely scene where he greets the representatives of various groups who’ve come to offer him their support. It was clearly done in public, and done to make the most of the tributes – a photo-op.

To seal the deal, a Polish nobleman offers to marry his beautiful daughter to ‘Dmitry’. He’s pretty keen, she’s definitely keen, already seeing herself as Czarina, and they have an intimate scene beside a pool that’s appeared in the middle of the stage. He’s torn by doubt – should he tell her the truth or not? Will she love him as he is, or does she only love him because she thinks he’s the heir to the Russian throne? Eventually he decides to confess, and she’s horrified. She has no intention of marrying a peasant! However, she’s also politically astute, and comes to realise that he may be a fake, but he’s a powerful fake, with a good chance of becoming the real Czar, so she better get on board before the train leaves the station. I remember them ending up in the pool, getting very wet, though I’m not sure now how all that related to the dialogue. By this time I was finding it hard to keep an eye on the surtitles as there was so much happening on stage.

The final scenes covered the fighting over the throne, and were back to being confusing. From what I could understand, the fake Dmitry’s forces are defeated and he’s killed, though whether this is after he’d successfully claimed the throne or not, I couldn’t tell. The program notes inform us that he did actually rule for a short time before being ousted, so I assume that’s what the play was telling us.

These Russian actors certainly know how to make the most of their curtain calls. There were a number of bouquets  handed over, and not just to the ladies. Evgeny Mironov who played the pretender received several of them, and the whole cast took their time to revel in the applause, which was pretty strong.

I enjoyed this performance much more than I thought I would, and I may be more willing to check out foreign productions in future (but don’t bet on it).

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me