Boris Godunov @ Barbican, London

cast list
Alexey Dadonov
Alexander Feklistov
Irina Grineva
Ilia Ilin
Nikolay Khmelev
Olga Khokholva
Leonid Krasovitsky
Andrey Kuzichev
Sergey Lanbamin
Alexander Lenkov
Avangard Leontiev
Nikita Lukinsarovitch
Evgeny Mironov
Evgeny Plekhanov
Dmitry Shcherbina
Oleg Vavilov
Igor Yasulovich
Elena Zakharova
Mikhail Zhigalov

directed by
Declan Donnellan
With its own controversial Boris newly ascended, London should warmly welcome a new production of Pushkin’s play of power struggles, Boris Godunov, as it sweeps into the Barbican immediately preceding another larger-than-life work, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida.

With resident theatre company Cheek by Jowl, a globe-trotting interpreter of Shakespeare and other canonical favorites, returning to its home base once again, the opportunity to see its production of Boris Godunov helmed by artistic director Declan Donnellan in one of its limited number of performances is well worth a revolutionary struggle.

Boris Godunov, written by Alexander Pushkin in 1825, chronicles the sixteenth century row over power in tsarist Russia following the rein of Ivan the Terrible. A conspiracy involving the death of Ivan’s youngest son Dmitry has found Boris Godunov, a friend and brother-in-law of Ivan’s natural successor, governing Russia. But when monk Grigori Otrepyev, posing as Dmitry, begins a quest for the tsardom, an epic clash ensues, leaving Russia engaged in civil conflict. Pushkin’s play is a tale of ruthless political guiles, with rhetorical qualities reminiscent of both Shakespeare and Racine, each a regular in Cheek by Jowl’s repertoire. Ruminations over the virtues and vices of rulership abound, delivered by a uniformly impassioned Russian cast that performs the play in its native Russian language with English surtitles.

Cheek by Jowl are at their pinnacle when capturing the ritual and ceremony of classic works, and Boris Godunov is no exception. This production begins with the chants of Russian clerics as the audience enters, and the struggles over the tsardom are never more apparent than when Boris, his son Feodor, and the imposter Otrepyev are flanked across the stage for the warring factions to fight over. Though things are off to a slow start as the intricate plot is established, the entrance of slinky Irina Grineva as Otrepyev’s love interest Marina starts the ball rolling on what is ultimately an immensely satisfying production of a wickedly open-ended play.

In an extended sequence between Otrepyev and Marina where Pushkin’s language is at its most personal and expressive, the stage of the Barbican, which has been reorganized in a traverse configuration with audience sections on either side, is put to its fullest use. The floor of the stage opens to present a shallow fountain, into which Otrepyev, played guilelessly by Evgeny Mironov, casts kopek coins and the pair of lovers eventually descend in an almost baptismal ritual of connection. In Marina we get the beginnings of a truly three dimensional female character, one who’s plagued both by Otrepyev’s betrayal and an insatiable desire for power, but her subplot is ultimately left menacingly unresolved.

In fact, Pushkin’s play is full of frayed threads of plot. As is typically the case amidst tense political climates, easy answers are nowhere to be found. When Boris dies, Basmanov, Godunov’s faithful army leader, is forced to choose between Otrepyev’s camp and Boris’s young son, Feodor, whose own future is on the rocks. As Basmanov, Mikhail Zhigalov gives one of the evening’s most moving performances, caught in a personal struggle between his own heart and mind, matched only by Alexander Feklistov as tsar Boris Godunov, poised ever so regally on a slippery downward slope toward ruination.

At the play’s end, the audience is left with plenty of meaty loose ends still to chew on, which is perhaps an inevitable result of the play’s subject matter and also one of its subtle weaknesses. Still, this expertly crafted Godunov should be good enough to leave audiences’ appetites amply whetted for Cheek by Jowl productions to come, Troilus and Cressida in particular.

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