Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Boris Godunov in the modern era

I found myself having to read Boris Godunov so that I could make any sense out of Eimuntas Nekrosius' latest production.  He was originally going to stage it in Moscow with a Russian cast but when Russia annexed Crimea, Nekrosius chose to cancel the production and reset it in Vilnius with a Lithuanian cast.

It came out last May, 2015, but my wife and I only got around to seeing it this past weekend.  Lithuanian theater is very different in that you don't get long running shows, but rather recurring shows.  It must make it tough on actors as one has to hold a whole repertoire in his head, as one could very well be performing one play one week and entirely different play the next week.  Each director has his core actors, but they draw actors from each other quite often.  It is quite impressive seeing these actors take on so many roles during the theater season.

Unfortunately, Boris didn't translate very well to the modern era.  In my opinion, this is a very specific story set in the late 16th and early 17th centuries and seeing the characters come out in trench coats and leather jackets doesn't really work.  Marina Mniszech looked like a sexy WWII German spy seducing the poor False Dmitry in his cheap leather jacket, who had so madly fallen in love with her and wanted to drop his charade.  Marina convinces him to go through with his plot to usurp Boris.  There was something oddly Soviet about the whole production which belied the very nature of the play, set between the Muscovites and the Lithuanian Grand Duchy as they vied for power over the Slavic world.

Pushkin didn't have much time for either Poles or Lithuanians, even though his grandfather Hannibal was baptized in a Russian Orthodox church in Vilnius.  Hannibal was an emancipated slave who was rechristened Abram Petrovich Gannibal and raised in Peter the Great's household.  For Pushkin, the former Grand Duchy very much represented the Pale of Tsarist Russia.

However, in this play we see a major conflict between the two powers, which is based squarely on history.  The play is broken up into scenes, with entirely different sets that would seem by today's standards to be better suited for a movie.  Mussorgsky made it into an opera in the 1870s, which is often reprised.  Pushkin intended it as a play but it has rarely been produced this way.

Pushkin was steeped in Shakespeare at the time.  The relationship between Boris and Dmitry is very similar to that of Richard III but the structure of the play is entirely different.  Ultimately Boris simply dies, and the false Dmitry, who was actually a defrocked monk, gains the throne by default.  Pushkin chooses to end the play this way, even though the false Dmitry's reign was very short lived and it was the devious Prince Shuisky who ultimately gained the royal seat, the last in the Rurik Dynasty.

I'm not sure what the intent was here, as the translation I read didn't strike me as a very good one.  It read very straight up, as if Pushkin was simply providing an excerpt into early Russian history before Peter the Great subordinated the Polish-Lithuanian Joint Kingdom, with Catherine later absorbing Lithuania into the Russian empire.  Maybe it was a cautionary tale of all the tumult that existed before Russia achieved its greatness and why Russians should forever be wary of their western neighbors.

I'm equally puzzled why Nekrosius showed great interest in this play other than to further impress audiences with his ability to tackle difficult productions.  I think it would have worked better in Russian.  Language is an essential part in all of Pushkin's work language.  Translated into Lithuanian or English, it loses much of its meaning and resonance.

It does appear that Nekrosius was trying to reverse the cautionary tale, reminding Lithuanian audiences that at one time this country posed a serious threat to Tsarist Russia, linking it to the ongoing battle in the 20th century when Lithuania finally won its independence back in 1991.  However, you can only read this between the lines, as Nekrosius pretty much sticks to the original text.

Anyway, it was fun to watch.  I particularly enjoyed the scene in the tavern on the edge of the Lithuanian wilderness, where Gregory tries to fool the Russian soldiers with his interpretation of the Tsar's edict for the capture of a runaway monk.  Nekrosius had great fun with this scene, playing it to full absurdist effect, which was the hallmark of his earlier plays.

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