By Alexander Pushkin
Directed by Declan Donnellan
Company: Cheek By Jowl
Venue: Barbican Theatre
Date: Saturday 17th May 2008
I knew nothing about this play except for its name, and that it was Russian. It was also being done by Russian actors, in Russian. Given my experiences during the RSC’s Complete Works festival, it’s surprising I chose to go to this, but we do like Cheek by Jowl’s work – the Twelfth Night had been exceptionally good. So here I was, knowing nothing of what was to come, but looking forward to a new experience.
Our seats were on the Barbican stage. Actually, the temporary seating ran down both sides of the stage, the former auditorium was screened off, and the acting space was a long narrow platform sandwiched between the two. Still, I can always claim I’ve been on stage at the Barbican, if I ever feel the need.
As we came in, there was a church service in progress at the far end of the platform, to our left as we sat down. Russian Orthodox – lots of beards, incense and chanting. To our right, a man sat at a table, tapping away on a battered old typewriter. I took this to be Pushkin, writing the masterpiece we were about to see, but that wasn’t quite it. The chanting continued for some time, and then the lights dimmed as two characters began the play. Dressed in modern suits, they were talking about Boris Godunov having killed the heir to the throne, Dmitry, and how the people would want Boris to become their next ruler. For those familiar with Shakespeare, this was home ground. I was a little confused by the way one of the characters, a prince, was also interacting with Boris as he told the other chap what he’d seen of the heir’s murder. He and Boris played some game with their hands over the crown, which sat on a small throne between the church area and the table. Then Boris removed the crown, and sat on the throne himself. After that, he became colder towards the prince, but I don’t know whether this was based on the prince’s own description of events or a parallel piece of action. Anyway, it was clear that these two characters, both members of the royal family, consider themselves to have better claims to the throne than ambitious Boris. However, the people love him, so it’s Boris’s crown.
After the church stuff is all cleared away, the man at the typewriter starts to talk. Apparently he’s a monk who’s lived through Ivan the Terrible’s reign, as well as his son Feodor’s, and he’s been writing a history of the events so that the Russian people will know about their past. There’s a young lad with him. He came to the monastery as a boy and looks after the older man, despite having one arm shorter than the other – he holds his left arm awkwardly. When the monk gives him the history, telling him to carry on the work, he decides to run away, and possibly plans to become Czar himself – both Steve and I were a bit unsure on this point. The surtitles were very useful, but it was easy to miss a line or two when we were caught up in the action. Anyway, the young man ends up at the Russian/Lithuanian border, and is nearly caught by the officers of the law, who have a written description of the man they’re looking for. Being able to read, he lies about the description to try and throw suspicion on someone else as the runaway, but this other chap remembers enough of his learning to give an alternative version of the officer’s orders, and the young man has to fight to escape. It’s not exactly clear what happens. He seemed to give the officer a jab in the neck, so that he could hardly talk, but then the action shifted to the next scene.
From here the play really began to hook me. The young man pretends to be Dmitry, the deceased heir, and for all sorts of reasons, people believe him. Most importantly, the kings of neighbouring countries choose to support him, and are prepared to provide troops to help him regain ‘his’ throne. Disaffected Russians also flock to him, and there’s a lovely scene where he greets the representatives of various groups who’ve come to offer him their support. It was clearly done in public, and done to make the most of the tributes – a photo-op.
To seal the deal, a Polish nobleman offers to marry his beautiful daughter to ‘Dmitry’. He’s pretty keen, she’s definitely keen, already seeing herself as Czarina, and they have an intimate scene beside a pool that’s appeared in the middle of the stage. He’s torn by doubt – should he tell her the truth or not? Will she love him as he is, or does she only love him because she thinks he’s the heir to the Russian throne? Eventually he decides to confess, and she’s horrified. She has no intention of marrying a peasant! However, she’s also politically astute, and comes to realise that he may be a fake, but he’s a powerful fake, with a good chance of becoming the real Czar, so she better get on board before the train leaves the station. I remember them ending up in the pool, getting very wet, though I’m not sure now how all that related to the dialogue. By this time I was finding it hard to keep an eye on the surtitles as there was so much happening on stage.
The final scenes covered the fighting over the throne, and were back to being confusing. From what I could understand, the fake Dmitry’s forces are defeated and he’s killed, though whether this is after he’d successfully claimed the throne or not, I couldn’t tell. The program notes inform us that he did actually rule for a short time before being ousted, so I assume that’s what the play was telling us.
These Russian actors certainly know how to make the most of their curtain calls. There were a number of bouquets handed over, and not just to the ladies. Evgeny Mironov who played the pretender received several of them, and the whole cast took their time to revel in the applause, which was pretty strong.
I enjoyed this performance much more than I thought I would, and I may be more willing to check out foreign productions in future (but don’t bet on it).
© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me