MAY 2008  
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'Cheek by Jowl', under the artistic direction of Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormorod, have pulled off a surprising cultural coup. The Barbican 'bite08' season introduces two 'Cheek by Jowl' productions. Later this month Troilus and Cressida and, last night, the Russian political epic Boris Godunov. The former in English, the latter in Russian with surtitles. Make no mistake, Pushkin's masterpiece sits easily alongside a Shakespeare classic. There is spectacle and humour, lust and passion, political intrigue, disguise and bloody murder.

The story of Boris Godunov is based on a particularly fraught period in Russian imperial history when Ivan the Terrible's dynasty declined leaving a volatile political vacuum. Although eventually the Romanovs would reign supreme, for a brief period murder and usurpation provided the keys to unlocking the Russian throne. The eponymous Boris, an upstart bully with more than his fair share of Hamlet's Uncle Claudius about him, has murdered Russia's young prince and seized the Tsar's fur-capped crown for himself. Boris is a Russian bear in manner, wrestling with his political advisers and humiliating them when things go drastically wrong. Imagine Ed Balls in a head lock from Gordon Brown and you get the drift.

Unfortunately for Boris Godunov, enough suspicion surrounds his meteoric rise to power to prompt the polemic writings of disparate monks eager to set the historical record straight. One old monk dictates all he knows about the imperial palace and its intrigues to another younger monk, one whose age would closely match that of the murdered heir to the Russian throne. Grigori Otrepyev, the young monk whose left arm is strangely withered, reads and digests the old monk's tales until he is able to escape his monastery and embark on the journey of a political lifetime. Armed with secret, seemingly identifiable personal knowledge, Grigori drums up Polish and Popish support to invade Russia from the east and 'restore' this imposter to ultimate power. Boris Godunov tells the fascinating tale of this deception and the ease with which corruption and greed can outweigh commonsense and duty.

The Barbican Theatre has been transformed into a traverse stage. Audience sit on either side of a long raised acting space. Actors mount the platform from either end or scurry around its perimeter. Piercing shafts of corridor lighting sweep the stage from either end, creating long, ominous shadows through which the actors weave. The central area bears a double trapdoor that opens into a large pool. When the imposter seduces his future bride from the Polish nobility, he does so waste-deep in water; the young Marina Mnishek, played with cold seductive charm by Irina Grineva, joins the man who admits his true identity in the baptismal font of deceit. Rather than lose the opportunity of becoming Tsarina of Russia, Marina chooses to disregard the illegitimacy of her suitor. Marina's lust for power matches the young monk's.

This is not just good theatre. This is great theatre, due in no small measure to the outstanding performance of Evgeny Mironov as the deceitful young monk. Mironov rules the stage and rules his audience with the easy charm of a political candidate in full flow. One brilliant piece of staging on Declan Donnellan's part presents Grigori drumming up support from the Russian satellite nations. With all the pizzazz of an American presidential convention, Grigori wields his microphone in the face of aristocrat and politician, poet and 'common man', all to demonstrate the support for his ambition in the most public arena possible. Mironov charms his audience and is utterly convincing in the role. Destiny and deceit sit comfortably on this fine actor's shoulders.

Mironov is assisted by an exceptional cast who double in several roles, each adding to the overall grand narrative. Alexander Feklistov, as the rugged Tsar Boris Godunov, is a perfect foil to Mironov's easy snakelike manner. Feklistov careers around the stage like a cornered animal, ruling Russia with a rod of fear, only demonstrating his own vulnerability when the inevitable chest pains of mortality drive him into an early grave. He leaves his young son to the political wolves who, quite understandably, devour the prince before he can accede to the throne, paving the way for the Imposter Grigori to take ultimate control.

At just over two hours without an interval and performed entirely in Russian, Boris Godunov caused this reviewer, quite understandably, to be somewhat reticent about the evening's entertainment. By the end of this wonderful production, all concerns were completely removed. The time flew by as a gripping narrative, beautifully acted and clearly articulated in thought and action, unfolded with delightful ease. This is not just theatre; this is Boris Godunov theatre. Miss this, and you miss arguably the most important theatrical experience this season.

Kevin Quarmby © 2008