It’s extraordinary how many works have been upstaged by the operas based upon them. Of none is this truer than those of Pushkin, whom the Russians regard as highly as we do Shakespeare or the Germans Goethe.
Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades are known to most of us primarily from Tchaikovsky’s operas, and Boris Godunov from Mussorgsky. Just how much we’ve been missing is apparent in Michael Boyd’s revelatory staging of the original 1825 Boris Godunov play in Adrian Mitchell’s verse adaptation. It’s a great coup for Sir Michael — the RSC artistic director’s valedictory production appears to be the play’s first professional staging here.
Mussorgsky’s cherry-picking from Pushkin’s 25 short scenes of those most suited for musical treatment — Boris’s self-torturing monologues, the Pretender’s courting of the Polish princess Maryna and the crowd scenes — has made it hard to believe there was more to be mined from the play. Wrong, and wrong again. In restoring Pushkin’s more complex political spectrum, Mitchell and Boyd show just why the Russians esteem him so highly.
Boyd finds a tone and style that rescue Boris Godunov from the serioso grandiloquence of Mussorgsky’s appropriation, brilliant of course though that is. The composer portrays a mighty Tsar, brought down by cancerous guilt for assassinating Dmitry, rightful heir of Ivan the Terrible, while bells toll and a holy fool bemoans the fate of the motherland. Taking these impressions with you into the Swan, you’ll be astonished to meet Lloyd Hutchinson’s Boris, a grizzled, ill-at-ease hustler, cracking jokes in a Northern Irish accent and scarcely crediting his luck at what he’s been getting away with. By the boyars he’s sniffily regarded as a low-born upstart whom they can’t wait to depose. In the meantime they’ll play along, but ever ready to throw in their lot with the rising fortunes of Grigory (or Grishka), the Pretender who claims to be Dmitry, a Dmitry who miraculously survived Boris’s assassination.
Despite Pushkin’s own enormous admiration for Shakespeare (which he read only in French prose translations), and although there are palpable echoes in Boris of Macbeth (bloodguilt, ghostly apparitions), Richard II and Henry IV (usurpation), Richard III (bloodguilt, black-spider humour) and King Lear (truth from a Fool), it’d be a mistake to over-urge comparison between their work. In Shakespeare, political intriguing is generally in deadly earnest, while in Pushkin, as Boyd so rightly emphasises, it’s ironic and playful, as indeed it had to be if the poet was to have any hope of getting his play past censors who’d long had him in their sights.
Mitchell and Boyd commendably follow Pushkin’s original 1825 version, entitled Comedy about Tsar Boris and Grishka Otrepiev, and not the ‘adjusted’ version of 1831, from which Mussorgsky carved the libretto of his operatic tragedy. An old debate about whether Pushkin intended to end with general acclamation of the Pretender as Tsar or with the eloquence of the people’s silence is cleverly resolved. Jake Fairbrother’s Gavrila Pushkin (noble supporter of the Pretender and, yes, an ancestor of the poet whom he was proud to acknowledge) attempts to act as cheerleader, only for the people to remain stubbornly silent — indeed an idiomatically Pushkinian ruse.
The play emerges as extraordinarily modern in its anti-sentimentality and in dealing playfully with matters of life and death. Instance only the superb ‘love’ scene in which Gethin Anthony’s Byronically costumed young Pretender sets about wooing Lucy Briggs-Owen’s extravagantly glamorous Polish princess. Rashly playing the ‘love me not as the future Tsar but for myself alone’ card, the Pretender is dumbstruck when she retorts that there’ll be time enough to talk about love when he’s on the throne, but he gets the point.
Schooled at Moscow’s Malaya Bronnaya Theatre, Boyd perfectly captures the wildly comedic feel of the play. His production is fast-moving, often ironic, knockabout and very funny, but also allows the momentous issues of dictatorial power and a subjugated populace to emerge clearly. Putin’s photo appears in the programme, and there’s a moment when Boris affects a Stalinesque greatcoat, but Boyd thrusts no over-specific parallels upon the play.
One had hoped that Michael Boyd would have brought more of his Moscow apprenticeship to his ten-year leadership of the RSC. ‘Revolutions: an exploration of a new generation of post-Soviet theatre’ petered out after the fitful 2009 efforts of The Drunks and The Grain Store, and the promised Gogol Dead Souls never materialised. But he’s leaving on a high with a brilliant landmark production, superbly acted, which is a huge credit to the RSC and gives the Anglophone world a real taste of Pushkin’s greatness. In the poet’s own lifetime, not a single one of his plays was performed — Boris Godunov not until 1870. It is time to make amends.