After a slow-burning first hour, Michael Boyd’s production of Boris Godunov comes into its own in the final sixty minutes, as he throws Alexander Pushin’s drama about autocracy and rebellion into fifth gear, hurtling towards a powerful conclusion. And though it’s not Boyd’s most inventive, exciting or powerful production, it makes some nods towards his style as Artistic Director and is a fitting end to his tenure.
The story of Boris Godunov is similar to many of Shakespeare’s kings. A Russian Tsar who came to power in 1598 through questionable circumstances, popular opinion of him soured during his seven years in office before he died of a heart attack as rebel forces, led by the pretender Grigory Otrepiev (a young monk), began chipping away at his regime in the guise of Prince Dmitry, the dead heir. In 1825, Pushkin mythologized and distorted the story somewhat to make the narrative one of power and revolution, though it was banned by censors and never really given a proper staging until the 1980s.
Michael Boyd’s production (utilising a poetic translation by Adrian Mitchell) moves through eras smoothly, opening with actors dressed in sixteenth century garments and moving steadily through the ages to Stalinistic furs and, finally, simple business wear complete with iPhones and microphones. It’s a simple idea, and is done with a light enough touch that we don’t really notice until key points that the tone has changed. The point it makes, however – that Russia has been ruled by tyrants for as long as anyone can remember – is hardly subtle, and I question somewhat the hope this gives for any stable future in Russia it’s suggested that the country is basically ungovernable.
Boyd’s trademark during his time at the RSC has become the singular, striking image, and there is no shortage of them here. From the loud opening montage of moments which we will see over the next two hours to the disconcerting levels present in the final tableau, this is a production which works through a conversation with aesthetics. The climactic battle scenes are as good as any in the Histories cycle, complete with semi-gymnastic movement and a constant stream of actors. At another point, a fountain is beautifully and simply evoked using bowls and jugs.
Tom Piper’s simple set consists of a brushed wood floor and a gold scaffold with hanging costumes (another charming nod to the design of the Histories), and allows breathing space for some charming performances. Though he takes a while to warm up, Gethin Anthony as Grigory presents himself as a man of the people and a more worthy leader than Boris; his wooing scene with Lucy Briggs-Owen’s Princess Maryna is delightfully balanced, as she offers the perfect foil to his presumptuous advances. Lloyd Hutchison’s Boris is the opposite of Grigory, portraying a strong, sturdy man who achieves his goals through talking rather than action and gets rid of his opponents with knowing hints to Prince Shuiskii (played by the brilliant James Tucker who, quite frankly, steals every scene he’s in).
But for all it’s strengths, Boris Godunov fails to really capture the imagination or probe deeply into the question at hand. By having the mob commit violent acts towards the end of the play, Pushkin clearly attempts to make some point about the dangerous nature of revolution and its relationship with tyranny, but all these interesting ideas feel hidden at the end of Boyd’s production. Then again, this sums up what Boyd’s best at; making the personal political and vice versa, drawing on a range of influences to get the widest possible scope. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t expecting something a little more exciting for Boyd’s final show, but it’s nonetheless a production with the detail, power and humour which has defined his Artistic Directorship.