The Royal Shakespeare Company is the natural home for Pushkin's great drama with its echoes of Macbeth and the history plays and its prudent policy of commenting on the political turmoil of its own era, the 1820s, through a depiction of the unrest in an earlier period - Moscow at the cusp of the seventeenth century.
In this country, we are more familiar with Mussorgsky's very different operatic handling of the material. There have been rare sightings of the original performed by Russian actors in outstanding accounts of the piece by Yuri Lyubimov and Declan Donnellan. But this production – which uses a springy translation by Adrian Mitchell and is incisively directed by Michael Boyd – marks the play's long overdue English language premiere at a flagship theatre.
With feigned reluctance, the title character takes the throne by popular demand after the death of Ivan the Terrible but his reign is dogged by rumours that he ordered the murder of Ivan's little son.
Then an obscure young monk, Grigory, challenges his authority by assuming the identity of this prodigal rightful heir and raising an army abroad to march against Godunov. The play is a mordant commentary on the instabilities of power and the repetitive nature of tyranny and it crackles with edgy topical relevance. Boris is, after all, not the only Russian ruler to have come up through the Secret Police.
Boyd's production is alive to this in the modernity that gradually creeps into the clothing and in the highly physical black slapstick with which it underlines the fickleness of the mob.
The costumes that hang in racks at the back add to the unsettling provisional feel and are eventually torn down and thrashed around in the battle scenes. Lloyd Hutchinson's Boris is a stroppy Ulster-accented boor who calculatedly looks miscast for Tsardom and who communicates his anxieties to the audience like a beleaguered stand-up comic even tumbling into the front row at one point.
The irony is that his supporters don't care if Grigory (played with a slightly crazed dash by Gethin Anthony) is authentic or not. This is brought home in the excellent scene where his seduction of a Polish princess (an avid, pop-eyed Lucy Briggs-Owen) comes unstuck when he makes an honest confession. The production has insufficient emotional resonance but it is graphically alert to the absurdist aspects of a play in which there is more than one fake.
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