Boris Gudonov @ Warwick Arts Centre
The last couple of months of my life have been very dominated by Russian history. After seeing Shared Experience's War and Peace I almost immediately began reading the book. Seven weeks later, I finished it last weekend (it's good, I recommend it!) and celebrated only a couple of days later with Cheek by Jowl's production of Pushkin's Boris Gudonov, a production that has been around for a good few years but is now back in the UK.
Thankfully, Boris is a far more simple story than Tolstoy's epic, and although an understanding of terms like 'boyars' was useful, this was a universally recognisable tale of politics, treachery and change, with resonances of Richard III (the programme confirms that Pushkin was reading a great amount of Shakespeare at the time) throughout. The story may have been a simple and familiar one, but in Declan Donnellan's capable hands it also became a beautiful piece of lovingly-crafted theatre.
Performed in traverse on the Arts Centre theatre stage, the set was a simple long raised block running the length of the stage, on which the play was entirely performed (save for the occasional peasant running alongside on the lower levels). The long thin stage worked perfectly for the company's stunning use of space and distance - conversations would often take place between two people at opposite ends, across tableauxs of frozen actors. Just as important as the conversation itself were the other physical elements that fell between the participants as they moved. In the early treasonous conversations between the courtiers, they moved freely around the stage while Boris Gudonov himself, the subject of their mutterings, also roamed. Every time they encountered him the courtiers would smile, slap hands, engage in little games, but always continuing their plotting, thereby emphasising the duplicitous nature of their roles. The combination of the physical and the textual throughout yielded similar rewards, creating something beautiful and exciting even out of the more mundane moments.
The production located itself in a contemporary version of Russia, where the scheming politicians wore suits and the ball became an off-stage disco. Yet the stage was also filled with monks and priests of the Russian Orthodox Church, their robes and habits lending the production a strange sense of timelessness. Donnellan and Nick Ormerod's Russia was a modern one that placed a great deal of power and faith in its oldest institutions, and the amount of time spend on ritual - the ceremonial crowning of the Tsar, the death rites, the opening prayers - all conjured a sense of the system that was being disrupted, for better or worse, by the machinations of politicians.
Alexander Feklistov, so good in Three Sisters and Twelfth Night, excelled in the title role as the Tsar clinging on to his position. In moments of guilt at the murder of the true heir, he was particularly compelling, only finding peace in inhaling deeply on his ever-present cigarettes, calming his increasingly manic rants. Tortured by the image of a wandering child with a lit candle, the ghostly Dmitri he had murdered, he clung to his own son ( both played byt he excellent Nikita Lukinsarovitch) in a mixture of paternal care and troubled penance. The entire struggle came down to this child, the innocent heir to the throne: as Boris died, he refused the last rites in order to finish remaking his son in his own image, and the child (now dressed in ludicrously oversized robes) became the new focus of the suited nobles. The report of the child's eventual suicide was upsetting, yet the pressure exerted on him throughout by his father seemed to leave no other alternative.
In opposition to Gudonov came Evgeny Mironov's Grigori Otrepyev, the young monk who realises he is the same age as the murdered heir would have been and poses as him in order to fulfil his own ambitions. Grigori was a fascinating character, the scourge (like Richmond) destined to destroy the usurper, but motivated solely by ambition and greed. Other than the murdering of children, Mironov's Grigori was no better than Boris, yet a compelling anti-hero. In one key scene, he grabbed a microphone and met the soldiers flocking to his cause in the manner of a game-show host, presenting his entire campaign as a combination of light entertainment and political rally. He constantly hid behind facades, whether with his soldiers or his peers.
Which led us to the central scene, the magnificent negotiation between Grigori and Marina Mnishek, played by Irina Grineva. This one scene brought Grigori to the brink of destruction yet left him stronger than ever, and the journey undergone by the two characters in this one encounter was extraordinary. Marina was unashamedly drawn to Grigori by his status and power, yet Grigori had genuinely fallen in love with her. In an attempt to cast off his facades, he admitted his falsehoods and asked her to accept him as he was, which of course she didn't, condemning him as pathetic and threatening to denounce him. The two parried across a pool of water, revealed under a trapdoor in the stage, occasionally flicking it over each other or washing their hands. At other times they clawed at each other's clothes, eager for different reasons to consolidate their relationship. Her manipulation, and his sudden honesty, made for a fascinating transference of power as he quite literally handed himself over to her, laying himself completely bare and leaving her standing over him in mockery, while he fell on the floor in agony over his stupidity.
But then, he dipped his head in the fountain. When he emerged, all had changed. He had realised that the facade was far more valuable to him than his own person, and he found a new confidence in himself with that realisation. Dismissing her as inessential and a disappointment, the audience could see him taking back his power and becoming stronger than ever, to the point where she called him back as he walked off. In the final movement of the scene, the power finally became balanced, both of them accepting his usurped name and authority and contracting themselves to each other, on the condition of his coup's success. The scene, made beautiful by its dim lighting and the ripples of water, was a superb demonstration of the skill of both actors and director.
Amongst the bad eggs, Dmitry Shcherbina stood alone as a relatively noble figure, Grigori's loyal lieutenant Kurbsky. At his introduction, in the showbiz entertainment scene, he was embarrassed and noble, speaking his short lines quietly and deeply and bringing gravitas to a minor role. The acting was uniformly excellent, and even held attention while the audience tried to follow the text on surtitles.
This is the third production I've seen by the Russian wing of Cheek by Jowl, and I'm thrilled every time at their work. It's spellbinding theatre, and the life they bring to their chosen texts is revelatory. Pushkin's play itself didn't particularly stand out to me as a classic, but Cheek by Jowl made it one.