Saturday, 19 January 2013

Boris Godunov, 9th January, Swan Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon

Boris Godunov forms the second part of this season’s A World Elsewhere trilogy at the RSC and marks Michael Boyd’s last production as Artistic Director. The first ever production of Pushkin’s little-known play in English, is by no means a weak exit for Boyd.

Lloyd Hutchinson as Boris Godunov – photograph by Ellie Kurttz

He was of course the man who brought us the memorable histories which began the Complete Works Festival, and echoes of this epic cycle are visible throughout the performance. The play itself works in much the same way as the histories, in that it tells the story of an earlier period of Russian history. The script has blood, treachery, death, deceit and treachery, pretty much everything you would expect in a history play. In a question and answer session with a selection of actors and the Assistant Director of the show, Lloyd Hutchinson described the play as ‘a love letter to Shakespeare’ and there are notable references to many of his works, including Julius Caesar, Henry V, Richard III and Coriolanus.

But Boris Godunov offers something unique from these plays: it has comedy. Whilst some of Shakespeare’s denser works offer a few moments of humour in the course of the production, Adrian Mitchell’s adaptation features comedy from beginning to end. Somehow it cleverly combines physical and verbal comedy on stage with tragedy, so that one minute you are laughing, which Boris sat in the stalls with his arm round the shoulder of an audience member and the next minute you are mourning the death of his men in combat. Boyd capitalises on the comedy in the script and creates physical comedy on stage too. My particular favourite moment was the creation of the fountains where Grigory arranges to meet Maryna. The fountains consisted of four women standing with bowls on their heads, and the moving water was made by men pouring it out of jugs into the bowls. This ingenious staging created the sound and effect of fountains on stage but maintaining a comedic undercurrent to the business transactions playing out in the scene.

The actors were, as always, fantastic. But particular mention must go to Lloyd Hutchinson in the title role as Boris, who shone out as an incredible performer, who kept the audience onside at every moment. Another special mention goes to Lucy Briggs-Owen as Maryna, whose interpretation of a neurotic and scheming princess rivalled any portrayal of the spoilt daughter of a king.

Boyd managed to stage a production which was incredibly entertaining, informative and clever in so many ways. But it also serves as a comment on modern day Russia. Towards the end of the play, the actors change from old fashioned military uniforms into smart modern suits, with guns instead of knives, and smart phones and earpieces to complete the look. Boyd has made an entertaining production with an extremely relevant political overtone. Shakespeare would be proud.

Boris Godunov is followed by A Life of Galileo which I imagine will be just as impressive as this production. Be sure not to miss out.

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