Barbican Theatre, London EC2
Opened 13 May, 2008

Cheek By Jowl’s annual seasons at the Barbican have settled into the format of one English offering and one Russian, the latter usually first begotten by the Chekhov International Theatre Festival. Their 2008 stint opens with the return of a Russian production first seen in Britain as part of LIFT 2001. On my last few encounters I had begun to grow jaded at director Declan Donnellan’s technique of illustrating the relationships between characters spatially through physical proximity or distance, even putting figures onstage when they are not “really” present. On this occasion, however, I found myself responding far more positively to this dimension, especially in the opening scenes of exposition in which Boris, the late Tsar’s favourite and likely to attain the throne himself, prowls around and even wrestles other courtiers as a physical illustration of his forceful dominance. I suspect that this physical/spatial aspect proved of value this time due to my unfamiliarity with Pushkin’s drama; on those other occasions, perhaps familiarity had bred contempt.
It also proved helpful to be watching this largely modern-dress production mere days after the RSC’s similarly themed Richard III. On the one hand, the preponderance of boyars in grey suits suggests a jockeying for position in the Politburo or, given the period during which the production was created, the political flux of Russia in the 1980s and ’90s – post-Brezhnev, pre-Putin – as an analogue of the “Time of Troubles” in the early 17th century between the death of Ivan the Terrible and the beginning of the Romanov dynasty. On the other, a comparison to the Roundhouse Shakespeares brings out similarities with the England of the Wars of the Roses: with a usurper (Boris) on the throne facing a challenge from a fraudulent pretender (“False Dmitry I”, to distinguish him from the two who followed him), the true lineage is about as obscure as any Plantagenet wrangling over Edmund Mortimer.
Alexander Feklistov as Boris and Evgeny Mironov as the false Dmitry lead a cast which repeatedly enlists the audience (seated in traverse) as the Russian people who are to be persuaded or commanded in differing directions; a strong liturgical element reinforces the sense that these power wrangles have a formal public aspect and an impact on the entire world in which the antagonists move.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

Return to index of reviews for the year 2008

Return to master reviews index

Return to main theatre page

Return to Shutters homepage