The Royal Shakespeare Company’s “A World Elsewhere” season has been advertised under the slogan “the greatest classics you’ve never seen”. Even for an insular British audience, that’s probably pushing matters somewhat as regards the forthcoming third presentation, Brecht’s The Life Of Galileo. It is, however, certainly valid in the case of the Chinese tale The Orphan Of Zhao, and shamefully plausible even of Pushkin’s “romantic tragedy” of 1831. I’ve only seen Boris Godunov once before, and that in Russian.
The late Adrian Mitchell’s new translation is for the most part in free verse in a fairly unadorned register. Its bluntness, particularly in the mouth of Boris himself, works well with Lloyd Hutchinson’s Northern Irish accent. When this former henchman of Ivan the Terrible, having manoeuvred his way on to the throne himself (in 1598), speaks candidly about the realities of power and its perception, remarking for instance, “Somebody dies – the murderer must be me”, he sounds like one of the UDA commanders of Hutchinson’s and my Belfast youth.
In contrast, Gethin Anthony makes full use of the oratorical flourishes Mitchell gives Grigory Otrepiev, a monk who becomes pretender to the throne by claiming (as, historically, did two subsequent pretenders) to be Dmitry, the son of the previous Tsar. Anthony’s “false Dmitry” expertly works the nobles whose soldiers and money he needs to back his cause. The role reaches its zenith, however, in a courtship scene wonderfully devoid of illusions played out with Lucy Briggs-Owen as Maryna, whose power-hungry pragmatism would make Lady Macbeth blush. The other major role is adroitly filled by James Tucker as Prince Shuisky, a courtier whose values oppose him to Boris but whose instinct for self-preservation makes him a valued collaborator.
Michael Boyd brings both his Shakespearean experience (as the recently retired artistic director of the RSC) and his Russian directorial training to bear, with a staging that is largely straightforward but with occasional irruptions of ritual or symbolism. Costumes are historically unspecific, with the occasional grey business suit suggesting that power and honesty remain complex and problematic in today’s Russia and beyond.
At two hours of continuous action, events unfold at a pace that seems dramatically natural without becoming oppressively protracted. The RSC seems to have weathered the storm in a teacup regarding the ethnic casting of The Orphan Of Zhao with only three east Asians (this production uses the same ensemble, which contains not a single eastern European, without having attracted a peep of outrage) and to be ably demonstrating once more that Shakespeare is not the company’s sole raison d’être.