To many, Russian literature is revered as a towering tradition blending a darker nihilism and realism with an innate, inexplicable ‘Russian-ness’. So why is it that so many new British renditions of long-loved Russian plays are actively seeking to subvert these expectations by employing abstract staging, setting and an emphasis on physical movement to accentuate the comic and, in some cases, absurd in a play? In short: because this is an approach which works, and is far from new in Russia itself.
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s current production of Boris Godunov is a stellar example of such innovation. Directed by Michael Boyd as part of the RSC’s wider World Elsewhere series, the production manages to be absorbing and fresh whilst holding to Pushkin’s original text and highlighting its mastery. We got to speak to several members of the cast and Assistant Director Emily Kempson about the creative process and the collaborative aims which shaped it.
Perhaps the most important factor in tackling a play such as Boris Godunov is that aforementioned ‘Russian-ness’ which is ever-present in the original text. Emily is keen to emphasise the benefit from a directional point of view of working from Adrian Mitchell’s adaptation of the play, which goes to the effort of retaining elements that would no doubt prove troublesome to any translator, such as the rhyming couplet scenes. Sensitive decisions such as this ensure that the mood of a scene is not lost in translation; for instance the bawdy, almost carry-on tone of the inn scene , which is enriched by the rhymes. Lloyd Hutchinson, who plays Tsar Boris, also underlines what Joe Dixon (Prince Vorotynskii) describes as the “extraordinary resource” to all cast and crew of Director Michael Boyd’s own perceptions of Russia as a result of having studied drama in Moscow and speaking the language: “From Day One we had Mr Russia in the room with us so he would always keep us on the straight and narrow – and you couldn’t argue with him!” What is clear, therefore, is that the tackling of the Russian element was very much a layered process. If in doubt, the original text was always consulted. Pushkin’s text was by no means the sole driving force of this project, with “the relevance to the modern day situation” playing another starring role.
The central premise of this particular interpretation is that of the recurring autocracy in Russia, a concept that Gethin Anthony (who plays the young pretender, Grigory) tells us was “largely informed by a lecture the cast and production team received from Martin Sixsmith”, journalist and former Moscow correspondent to the BBC. Here Hutchinson adds: “Michael used that [premise] to play around a lot with the period and was still experimenting with it when the play first went to preview. I was being fitted and re-fitted for different costumes all through the previews.” Tsar Boris’ extensive wardrobe ranges from 18th century-style regal gowns, to military coats which would look at home during Bloody Sunday of 1904, to the slightly more modern and minimalist uniform of crisp black suits and white shirts.
But whilst updating Pushkin’s original burgeoning angry mob of peasants to resemble the rather more recent, wealthier and technologically-savvy protesters of Red Square is clever, still cleverer is the way that this disconnect in era has been deftly woven in with text and context and is not merely limited to the tangible and realistic. A stark and abstract set design and an emphasis on physical (sometimes acrobatic) movement provides a fluid enough base for a story which, as Gethin puts it “has a real mish-mash of different periods”. Tucker elaborates on this to stress the importance of “the coats”, which were apparently being used in rehearsals from a very early stage and perhaps best exemplify this collaboration between all aspects of the production team. The coats are not only pieces of costume, stamps denoting characters’ reference points in time, but also form a part of the set at the beginning, as they hang lining either side of the stage, providing a sort of “wall”, and even – in the battle scenes – represent the action itself, when they are used as “weapons”. This, along with other innovative and conceptual means of conveying physical surroundings, brings out a playfulness to what could – without such devices, and bearing in mind the political overtones – be quite sombre viewing for any audience.
Overall, what is most striking from our discussion with Emily and the cast is that whilst this production of Boris Godunov is filtered through the two lenses of Mitchell’s translation and Boyd’s own artistic vision, it is in fact the collaborative efforts of costume designers, set designers, movement directors, musicians, and actors which have really filled it out. This brings it full circle to create what is an extremely compelling, cogent and inventive production that constantly reminds us of Pushkin’s initial genius, without which none of the rest would have been possible.
PHOTOS/ Ellie Kurttz