Friday, 18 January 2013

The Royal Shakespeare Company presents, Boris Godunov at The Swan Theatre (blogging event)

I was fortunate enough to take part in a blogging event with the Royal Shakespeare Company to watch the acclaimed performance of Boris Godunov at the Swan Theatre. Here is my review of the evening.

Shakespeare’s profound skill and style has influenced masters of literature since the staging of his first show in the mid-1500’s and, really, it’s no wonder. Using the past to portray the present and likely future, his plays were considered controversial and often provoked political debate. However, they remained a great dramatic feat and were, therefore, able to win the hearts of audiences then and now. Incidentally, one playwright that was greatly inspired by the works of Shakespeare was renowned Russian classicist, Alexander Pushkin. Because of this influence, it would only be right for the Royal Shakespeare Company to stage Pushkin’s greatest – arguably – play, Boris Godunov as part of the RSC's ‘A World Elsewhere’ trilogy.

Boris Godunov, written by Pushkin in 1825, based on events beginning in 1598, and performed at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2012/2013 in the first ever professional, uncensored, English spoken run of shows. I think you’ll agree, that covers a vast time period and some incredible historic events that allowed the cast to push boundaries. Time was one of the key themes explored in artistic director Michael Boyd’s production by noting how, like Shakespeare did, some events are not restricted by the bonds of time but rather they flow with it albeit, not always for the good. Assistant director, Emily Kempson, noted how Pushkin’s play transcends with those of Shakespeare because both are timeless – towards the end of the play, the sleek suits, dinner jackets and mobile phones suggested a modern day twist on the 17th century story, endorsing the idea that these events could be relevant to present events. Controversial? Very much so, but Lloyd Hutchinson, (Boris Godunov), claims that controversy was exactly what they intended to convey in order to maintain the taboo reputation of the show. After all, Pushkin wrote Boris Godunov as a piece of political opposition against Tsar Nicholas I’s regime, suggesting that his rule was a parallel of that of Tsar Boris some two hundred years earlier.

From this point, one can deduce that the play revolves around this one antagonist, Boris, when, in fact, this darkly comical piece of theatre struggles to provide the audience with an explicit protagonist. The mystery concerning Boris’ ascendency and the convenient death of the legitimate heir created a spiralling conspiracy against the artificial Tsar involving the betrayal of his own confidants and the imposition of a fake resurrection of the dead heir twelve years later in the form of Grigory, a young monk bored with monastic life. Indeed, each character possesses a sinister agenda in the play with little or no means for charitable action.

However, Boyd’s direction brought the best out of the melancholic plot, aided naturally by Adrian Mitchell’s sometimes witty adaptation. In an exclusive interview after the show, actors Lloyd Hutchinson (Boris Goduov), Gethin Anthony (Grigory), James Tucker (Prince Shuiskii), and Joe Dixon (Afanasii Pushkin) along with assistant director, Emily Kempson, all agreed that the way the piece was interpreted for humorous purposes was a key factor for this play because of the sincere nature of the storyline. I believe this feat was achieved what with the truly comical scene with the bawdy priests, the shrewd banter between the two aristocrats, (Tucker and Dixon) and also the attentive use of light and shade regarding the title character. Despite his treacherous accusation and seemingly inevitable downwards spiral due to his infrequent ruthlessness, this portentous exterior is counteracted by his tenderness towards his young son and heartfelt soliloquies expressing his concerns for the future – expertly acted by Hutchinson – eliciting a sense of sympathy for the character. This emotion reaches a critical climax in the final scene for Boris when he hits rock bottom and a conniving successor seems likely.

Artistically, the piece was just as sleek and interesting as the performance. The traditional Shakespearean trait of simplicity when it comes to, well, everything was apparent throughout due to the minimalistic staging and lighting and the strength of subtext told through elements of costume and paralinguistics. However, this kept a necessary balance because of the sheer weight of the script and the intensity of the plot; Hutchinson stated that quite often these epic plays are too often treated as literature and not theatre which, ironically, limits the power of the writing. One asset in particular was the use of costume, chiefly the long Russian coats which not only represented the passing of time but also, in my opinion, the idea of Russia acting as an ensemble nation and the initiative that rulers both live and die by the mob. This was seen during the war scenes when the coats were used to represent weaponry and also the way that Grigory’s dying horse was acted by a fellow man. Small details, but details nonetheless to create the bigger picture.

As Michael Boyd’s last directing venture with the RSC, he has earned himself a truly royal send off. The series and, more generally, the idea of ‘A World Elsewhere’ of which Boris Godunov is part of lends itself completely to the world today and the issues raised and showcased in the play. Boris Godunov is running at the Swan Theatre in Stratford until the 30th March alongside James Fenton’s The Orphan of Zhao and Bertolt Brecht’s A life of Galileo – unfortunately I only had the chance to officially review one out of the three but I would strongly recommend going to see all three productions in order to gain a wealthier insight into the far-reaching trilogy.

A must see production. Visit the RSC website for tickets or more information at

(Images courtesy and property of the RSC: image 1, Stephen Ventura as Shchelkarlov, Sadie Shimmin as Hostess, Philip Whitchurch as Varlaam; image 2, Gethin Anthony as Grigory)


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