A Tsar is Born

BORIS GODUNOV
The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 29th November, 2012

Pushkin’s classic drama defies categorisation. I suppose the best way to describe it is ‘Shakespearean’ – it contains elements of Old Will’s histories, comedies and tragedies, sometimes within the same moment.
Evil Tsar Boris (Boh-reese) at first denies the crown, reminding me of Julius Caesar, amid rumours of having murdered a young prince (Hello, Richard III). Meanwhile, bored young monk Grigory does a runner from his ascetic lifestyle, in the pursuit of worldly pleasures. He adopts the identity of the supposedly murdered prince and gathers supporters who will help him oust Boh-reese. That he is not the rightful heir doesn’t bother anyone too much. Grigory is a means to an end: he will rid Russia of Godunov.

Lloyd Hutchinson’s Boh-reese looks like Ricky Gervais’s David Brent and shares something of his management style. He is a curious mix of Machiavel and father, a powerful figure brought low by illness. The strongest scene, for me, involves his dying words to his young son Fyodor. He rattles off advice like Polonius saying ta-ta to Laertes. It is a manifesto that proves too much for the boy. In an assured performance, the very young Joshi Gibb slices his own throat open, rejecting his succession – proving you can’t always Push kin. (I’m so sorry).

As the pretender Grigory, Gethin Anthony is also a curious mix of heroism and villainy. It is the ambiguity of the characters that keeps them interesting, although they can appear as inconsistent or schizoid as the play lurches from drama to comedy to romance and back again. Anthony has a powerful presence. He would make an interesting Hamlet.

It’s a delight to see Lucy Briggs-Owen back on the Stratford stage as arrogant beauty Maryna, in a rom-com scene she plays with elegance and steel. I also enjoyed Philip Whitchurch’s Father Varlaam, a Toby Belch-cum-Falstaff figure who freestyles couplets in between boozing and singing.

Director Michael Boyd keeps the stage rather Spartan. He uses his ensemble to create atmosphere and define locations. Cast members form an amusing fountain at one point; at another they represent a battle charge by thrashing their coats onto the stage. Moments like these are very effective.

I was not as pleased with some of the clunky gear changes of tone. Broad comedy vies with boo-hiss plotting and vengeful soliloquy, and at times I found Adrian Mitchell’s rhyming couplets a little too noticeable – but then perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps the overt rhyming is an alienation device to make us think about the events unfolding before us, rather than becoming emotionally engaged.

As the action progresses, the costumes and props are subtly updated providing a low-key retrospective of Russian coats throughout the ages – but more importantly than that, the coats underpin the notion that the power struggles and despotism of the Tsars are still alive and well today, having survived Communism, Stalinism and the dismantling of the USSR. When Grigory the pretender is finally proclaimed Tsar (or should I say, Put in), he is completely up-to-date in his smart suit. He stands, literally, on the backs of the people. This is the final image of the piece, making a political point via theatrical means. It is an Orwellian moment, akin to seeing pigs and farmers around the same table. This is not just about Russian politics…It’s an eminently watchable and thought-provoking piece that deserves larger audiences.

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About williamstafford

Novelist (Brough & Miller, sci fi, historical fantasy) Theatre critic http://williamstaffordnovelist.wordpress.com/ http://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B008AD0YGO and Actor - I can often be found walking the streets of Stratford upon Avon in the guise of the Bard! View all posts by williamstafford

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