Gethin Anthony (Grigory Otrepiev). Photos by Ellie Kurttz. Courtesy of RSC.

You might be wondering why the Royal Shakespeare Company is currently presenting a play not by Shakespeare.  For the RSC’s latest production at the Swan Theatre in Stratford is Boris Godunov written by the great Russian dramatist Alexander Pushkin. The company has expanded its remit to include plays which are set in Shakespeare’s day, that were inspired by his work or that address events that shaped his world. The justification for this Russian play is that Pushkin echoes Shakespeare’s Histories and Macbeth. Boris Godunov is director Michael Boyd’s final production as Artistic Director. After a decade at the head of one of Britain’s most famous and successful companies this is his swansong. Boris Godunov follows on from the RSC’s season of Russian theatre ‘Revolutions’ in 2009. The company worked with contemporary Russian playwrights to introduce them to Shakespearean techniques in Stratford. Boyd has a personal interest in Russian theatre. In the late 1970s he trained as a director at the Malaya Bronnaya in Moscow, and saw for himself Soviet repression of the arts under Brezhnev.  He says he was struck by how drama can overcome censorship and its ability to comment contemporary life. This is Boyd’s first attempt at presenting a great Russian classic and he does so with mixed results.

Stephen Ventura (Shchelkarlov/Misail/Poet), Sadie Shimmin (Hostess), Philip Whitchurch (Varlaam/Prince Wisniowiecki). Photos by Ellie Kurttz. Courtesy of RSC.

The plot here appears to have all the elements of a gripping drama. The setting is Moscow in 1598 where the great Tsar Ivan the Terrible has died and Boris Godunov takes the throne. The play’s main themes are freedom, power and greed. Pushkin clearly makes reference to Russia’s political turmoil when he wrote the play. The central subject is the legality of absolute rule which haunts Boris who has murdered the rightful heir of the Tsar. Pushkin intended the play to be an allegory of power in his own time. These resonances in the play to contemporary Russia would have been obvious to the audience in Pushkin’s day. This production also makes explicit references to Russia today. In the programme, photographs of Stalin and Putin are reproduced alongside images of the contemporary punk rock band Pussy Riot who were imprisoned this year. Recent productions in Russia have also used Boris Godunov to comment on the nature of power such as dressing the lead character of Godunov to look like Putin. The theme of Russia as an autocracy, where its leaders are above the law and have exceptional power, seems as relevant today as it was in the 1820s. Pushkin defined Boris Godunov as a ‘romantic tragedy’. On the flyer, the production is billed as ‘a comedy about tyranny’. However, the play does not quite succeed either as a comedy or a tragedy. The soliloquies where Boris reveals his tormented conscious are reminiscent of Hamlet but they lack the power of Shakespearean verse. The character of Boris, played here by Lloyd Hutchinson, does not have the gravitas of Shakespeare’s great flawed heroes. Boris never quite connects with the audience; we neither admire nor fear him. More successful is the leader of the Orthodox Church, Patriarch Job. However, the best and must nuanced performance is not Boris Godunov but his opponent Grigory, who pretends to be the slain Prince Dmitri, son of the Tsar, in order to claim the throne for himself. This is actor Gethin Antony’s debut at the RSC and he is definitely one to watch in the future.

Lloyd Hutchinson (Boris Godunov). Photos by Ellie Kurttz. Courtesy of RSC.

The play is performed in verse rather than prose which makes good use of the RSC’s actors and versatile range. However, the production has a tendency to descend into shouting matches between the lead characters which are not helped by scenes with a loud fickle mob in Moscow. The setting also irritatingly fluctuates between historical and contemporary periods, from gold and fur robes to army camouflage and suits. This story of Boris Godunov will be also be less well known to Western audiences who will be more familiar with the operative version by Mussorgsky. A tyrannical ruler, a kingdom on the brink of war, a prodigal son fighting for his future, a musing on power and greed, these all sound like elements of a great drama with echoes of Shakespeare. However, this is a rather lacklustre production where Boyd has played it safe in his final play for the RSC. Swan Theatre 15 November 2012 – 30 March 2013 Royal Shakespeare Company Stratford-upon-Avon http://www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/boris-godunov/