Boris has just been made leader and there are two girls floating around the stage in matching miniskirts looking uncannily like the cheeky girls – it seems politics hasn’t changed that much since the 16th Century. Acclaimed theatre company Cheek By Jowl presents Boris Gudonov, Pushkin’s epic historical play, at the Barbican. Charlotte Marshall was in the first night audience.
As the audience drifts into a theatre thick with incense, onstage six Russian orthodox priests chant in time to the clicking of Pushkin’s typewriter, as he sits writing the story that is about to unfold.
The play begins with the throning of Boris Godunov, the new Czar of Russia. Rumoured to have murdered the rightful descendant, Ivan The Terrible’s youngest son Dmitry, in order to gain power, it is questioned whether he is God’s chosen leader. Seizing this as his chance for a life of grandeur and influence, Grigori Otrepyev, a young monk, runs away from his monastery claiming to be the slain Dmitry having miraculously survived. Desperate to believe in a righteous ruler, Otrepyev, now only referred to as Dmitry, quickly becomes popular with the public and the battle commences for the throne.
Inspired by Shakespeare’s histories, the influence of the playwright’s numerous depictions of power hungry Kings is clearly seen in Boris and the impostor Dmitry. Both are driven by an unscrupulous desire for power and are led into a dark world of deceit and immorality.
This desire comes not without consequence. Boris is plagued by the ghost of the child he killed in order fulfil his dream, who regularly enters the stage with a sinister presence similar to Banqou in Macbeth. Both men also display a painful, internal struggle between right and wrong. Boris, for example, begs God for his blessing so he may become the righteous leader, before lighting a cigarette on the church candles in what seems to be a metaphor for his insincerity. Dmitry refuses to accept the beautiful Marina as his bride unless she agrees to see him just as a man and not the future Czar, before turning on her and manipulating his fiancée into keeping his deception secret.
Set in the round with English surtitles, the play relies on minimal props and dark, simple costumes. Therefore a scene between Dmitry and Marina, dressed in a dramatic white dress, in which the stage opens to reveal a pool they both submerge into, creates one of the most highly charged and powerful scenes in the play.
Boris Godunov is a political drama – relying heavily on dialogue rather than action – that portrays the terrible consequences of the seductive appeal of power, culminating in the ultimate betrayal of the people around you when you eventually make the inevitable fall from grace.