views from the gods

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Boris Godunov
Jack Studio Theatre
15th January 2015

★★★★☆

Publicity photograph for Boris Godunov

Photography © Cameron Harle

As a lover of all things Russian (I even lived in Moscow once upon a time), the prospect of Ballast Theatre's production of Boris Godunov really excited me. And I wasn't disappointed - this fast-moving performance hooks you right from the start. Of course, you don't need to be a Russia geek like me to enjoy the play as the themes of authority, revolution and power are as relevant now as they were in Boris's day. Plus, well, it's just a really good play.

The real Boris Godunov is an intriguing character, whose story is immortalised by the great Russian writer Alexander Pushkin (and Howard Colyer who wrote this adaptation). Like all good tales, Boris's rise to power is a little bumpy. His career - infinitely more interesting than your average bloke's - starts in the court of Tsar Ivan the Terrible, where the clever and shrewd Boris quickly makes a name for himself. Then, when Ivan dies and his weak son Fyodor takes over, Boris, also the brother of Fyodor's wife, is left to rule - err, I mean "guide" him. Meanwhile Ivan the Terrible's youngest son, Dimitry, is proclaimed dead in mysterious circumstances. Yes, it's all very fishy. This all takes place before the opening curtain but the web of intrigue is frequently referred to in the chatter and gossip. You definitely don't need to remember all of this to understand things but having a little knowledge does make it all a bit clearer.

The performance opens to the chaos of the death of Fyodor. As the last of Ivan the Terrible's sons, Russia has been left without a leader and the people are getting desperate. They crowd a smoke-filled Red Square, craving news of a new ruler. Finally, after initially refusing the title, Boris (David Bromley) 'reluctantly' becomes King. Yet the whispers about Dimitry's death are ever present: was his death really an accident or did Boris play a part?

Boris Godunov rules Russia for the next six years, but having absolute power isn't as fun as he'd hoped. Sadly for him, his terrible nightmares prove to be very real, as suddenly a mysterious and charismatic monk claims to be the 'dead' Dimitry and starts gathering an army. With aims to storm the Kremlin and dispose of Boris, their revolutionary ideas spread quickly. A Russian King (or a modern-day dictator for that matter) should never sleep easy.

Publicity photograph for Boris Godunov

Photography © Cameron Harle

At 80 minutes long and with only the tiniest of spaces to fill, directors Scott Le Crass and Sean Turner have done a brilliant job of making Boris Godunov feel like a huge production. Kicking off with a bang and a cloud of smoke you're cleverly transported from modern-day London to the gloom of Russia in 1598. Don't be fooled by the colourful name of Red Square; this is a grimy, grey place where people wear grimy, grey clothes. Yet, for all the bombast and the odd special effect, this is also an intimate production. As the cast of 13 gathers on the stage, you are just centimetres from the action. At one point in the performance I got genuinely scared about my chocolate-filled bag when a cast member sat by my feet (the chocolate survived if you're wondering). But, leaving aside the dangers of squashed chocolate, this all helps you to feel closely connected to their world.

As alluded to above, this little play packs in some big performances, not least Bromley. Grand, imposing and just a little bit terrifying, it's easy to see why people bow before him. But there is also another side to Boris, which Bromley captures perfectly. From the proud father who admires his son's hand-drawn map of Russia, to the petrified madman who enlists the help of fortune-tellers, and the weary King who fears becoming the laughing stock of Russia; Bromley really gets Boris, and helps the audience to understand him too. Thomas Winsor is equally fantastic as the new revolutionary Dimitry. His presence looms large and his eyes glint of madness, adventure and powerful ideas.

But there are no weak links in Ballast Theatre, with most of the cast assuming several characters. However, while they manage this very well, this does occasionally make things confusing, particularly given the lightning-speed scene changes. Nevertheless, while I may have missed the odd detail, I was so absorbed that this really didn't matter all that much.

With stirring performances, an intriguing story and a moody smoke-filled stage, Boris Godunov is worth the trek to South London. It's a real delight to see a fringe production that tells this great tale so successfully.

Boris Godunov opened on 13th January and runs until 31st January 2015 at the Jack Studio Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Crofton Park (National Rail)



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