Time travelling Russians in lovely boots

Only a few weeks ago I was lamenting on this very blog that culturally-speaking, I don’t get out much. Soon after, I spotted something intriguing. The Royal Shakespeare Company was running a special event for bloggers, at the Swan Theatre in Stratford upon Avon (which as I had blogged, is only 20 minutes drive away, yet I rarely go to the theatre). The offer was to watch the play, for free, then meet some of the cast and crew, and blog about it. Clearly, this was fate calling. I shall go to the ball theatre.

And so it came to pass that on Tuesday 8th January I found myself a guest of the press office, treated to a performance of a Pushkin play, Boris Godunov. I deliberately didn’t do any research beforehand so I found my seat, skimmed the programme for the plot précis, looked at the bios of the actors, and settled back for the lights to go down.

First surprise: the lights didn’t go down. The music came on, performed live in the gallery of the theatre, and the suddenly the stage was filled with drunken 16th century revellers shouting, kissing, drinking, rolling out across the stage and on the walkways through the stalls. Having expected a serious-strokey-beard-russian-play, I had assumed dark, brooding, with occasional bombastic shouting. Clearly I was wrong. It was so bright I had a chance to examine the faces of the audience, who, unlike me, were playing it very cool. The lights later dimmed and the play then settled into a more conventional set up and I relaxed again.

The costumes were lavish, all heavily embroidered cloaks and trousers tucked into boots. The stage design was fairly minimal, though with a careful use of height, depth and distance. The storyline started to lay itself out: the rise and rise of a middle ranking Godunov, played by Lloyd Hutchinson the jealousy of royal nobles, the carefully PR-managed acceptance of the throne of Tsar, and the emerging rumours of Godunov’s backstory as a murderer of the previous Tsar’s brother many years before. In parallel we meet the pretender to the throne, a niave but increasingly confident runaway monk, Grigory, played by Gethin Anthony. The play returned again and again to the crowd scenes, which were unexpectedly funny, often irreverant, chaotic … a key collective character, and in fact the only character that had any real power.

RSC production information includes a Trailer which gives a good flavour of it. You can also read Pushin’s text online for free here thanks to Project Gutenberg. Boris Godunov was written in the mid 1800s but set in 1605, and that is part of the reason for including it in this season: Shakespeare often used historical analogies to make politically sensitive points. As the trailer hints, there are shadows of Stalinist Russia, and towards the end of the play I even spotted a mobile phone in a crowd scene, bringing us bang up to date. My first realisation that there was some playfulness with time was an early scene with the elderly monk in the 1600s writing by the glow of an electric light suspended on a cable. Throughout the performance there were time shifts forward, sometimes in subtle cues sometimes in great leaps.

It was this time travelling that I most wanted to ask the cast and crew about in the post show discussion. The 8 or so bloggers got to meet the 4 main characters and the assistant director to ask questions …

I mentioned my light bulb moment in the monk scene and got a reply from the monk himself, Gethin Anthony.

Some serious fashion bloggers were asking about costume, and I was pleased to hear I wasn’t the only one rather entranced by the boots. Lloyd Hutchinson said that the costumes definitely make a difference to how he acts. There is a point where they put on contemporary suits and shirts, and he said he felt his body language change. Certainly all the actors nodded at the importance of the clothing. I hadn’t known that the company is also running two other productions in parallel, so the difference between the costume, the set, the spoken style must be very important to them being able to switch hats, quite literally, from show to show.

There were some serious questions too, about Russian history, the apparent preference for autocracy over democracy. There was a particularly famous monk wrapped up in the Tsar’s family that escaped reference in this production. I think you know who I’m talking about. Come on RSC, maybe after the final bow? ;-p

But it’s when we talked about ideas of the Russian character that it got most interesting for me. The production had been advised by experts on Russian culture about what characters like Godunov would or wouldn’t do. Lloyd had questioned that all Russian men can’t surely be so smiliar, that there must be regional and personality differences. If the strong controlled style is so primary, “how come Putin cried his eyes out in public?”. I said something that probably came out wrong, that when one high brow theatre elite talks to another, they are exchanging information on the theatrical conventions. Surely, I agree with Lloyd, the real spectrum of personalities is as broad in every culture: the cultural stereotypes are about the most common characteristics or the most highly regarded, they are not, by definition, the totality of self-expression.


So. Did I enjoy Boris Godunov? Very much. Did I like meeting the stars of the show? Very much. What key messages would I take away with me?

  • Costumes matter
  • Timetravelling can be subtly subversive
  • You don’t have to discuss theatre in hushed tones with long words (See how I have resisted showing my knowledge of new historicism in relation to the staging of this play? I’m not a philistine I just try to wear my learning lightly. ahem.)
  • Acting sounds like hard work
  • It is true that actors go to the dirty duck after shows (I was tempted to follow them there and eavesdrop but that would probably have been sinister)
  • Boots tucked into trousers is a good look and you should try it.

Thank you to the RSC for the chance to do this! An evening very well spent, enjoyable and thought-provoking too.

Boris Godunov runs in the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon until 30 March 2013.  More information: www.rsc.org.uk/boris.


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