Cheek by Jowl’s director Declan Donellan presented the last performances of Boris Gudonov at the Barbican this last weekend with a Russian cast. Donellan’s relationship with Russian actors dates from 1997, when the British Council brought him and his partner and set designer Nick Ormerod, to work with the Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg on Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale. Boris Gudonov was first performed in 2000 at Moscow Art Theatre, and this time the Barbican and the Arts Council supported the same collaborative work in London. In Donellan’s words ‘this has given us a unique opportunity to develop an English company in the style of our Russian ensemble’. Donellan’s Troilus and Cressida is also performing at the Barbican with a British cast.
Alexander Pushkin wrote Boris Gudonov while he was in exile in 1825. The play is set during Russia’s ‘Time of troubles’ and it tells the story of an ambitious monk (Alexei Dadonov) who discovers that Boris Gudonov (Alexander Feklistov), Russia’s Tsar, killed Dmitri, Ivan the terrible’s grandson and successor, when he was a child. The monk flees Russia in an attempt to claim that he is Dmitri, the legitimate Tsar and to convince Poland and the Cossacks to follow him and fight against Boris Gudonov. How a poor monk convinces these people to fight for him to usurp the throne? The monk himself gives the answer: ‘I am a pretext for fight and discord’.
The monk falls in love with Marina Mnishek (Irina Grineva), who is an ambitious Polish noble woman. One cannot help the connection with Russian director Lev Dodin’s Gaudeamus, when Marina dances a dream-like waltz in a white dress with Dmitri’s impostor. In the love scene with Marina, the monk decides to confess that he is not the real Dmitri, only to find sheer rejection. Again, during this scene, Donellan cross-references Dodin as he makes use of a fountain where the characters meet. Marina submerges her head in the water and later splashes the stage with her wet hair when she realises that the monk is as ambitious as she is. Water is one of Dodin’s favorite symbols of love, life, action and struggle and Donellan uses it as an aesthetic place where symbols mingle in conflict and resolution. Marina decides to stay with the monk under one condition: that he is the legitimate Tsar.
The Barbican’s main stage was turned into a traverse theatre in which the use of faint light created a sense of unique intimacy. The ensemble showed a great sense of commitment towards the play as none of the actors stood out above the others, which is a rare feature in British companies. What stood out was the success of international collaborative work and the complex staging process of a highly intricated historical play.