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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Custom Gets Cold Shoulder




"What I like about Russian actors is that they come from where I come from," said the British director Declan Donnellan. "They know that theater must be intense and that they must interact with one another. I felt like I was coming home when I came here."


Donnellan has traveled the world with his famous Cheek by Jowl company and he is no stranger to working abroad with foreign companies. So when he says he knows where home is, he isn't to be doubted.


In fact, home for the director is the theater, no matter where it is located. And the better the theater, the more it seems to him like home.


"I think theater is more important in Russia than anywhere else in the world," Donnellan said. "And since the theater is my life, I'm more in tune with people here."


Right now, Donnellan is tuning up his latest production, a modern dress version of Alexander Pushkin's verse tragedy "Boris Godunov." Opening night is Thursday at the Gorky Art Theater.


"Boris Godunov" is Donnellan's second production in Russia, but his first in Moscow. The project, organized by the International Confederation of Theater Associations with the assistance of the British Council, features an all-Russian cast under Donnellan's direction with sets and costumes by the director's longtime colleague Nick Ormerod.


The duo of Donnellan and Ormerod gained international renown with Cheek by Jowl, a touring company they founded in 1981. In recent years, they have worked more and more independently. In 1997, they mounted a production of Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale" at the Maly Drama Theater in St. Petersburg and, last year, they challenged centuries of ossified tradition by staging Corneille's tragedy "Le Cid" in France with French actors for the Avignon Festival.


"The Winter's Tale," incidentally, was awarded the 1999 Golden Mask for best production of the year in Russia, while Donnellan's production of "Le Cid" won praise from many French critics who had doubted that an Englishman could possibly find the key to "the greatest of all French dramas."


Donnellan relishes the thought of wreaking havoc on tradition f or at least of giving it the cold shoulder.


"When I do Shakespeare," he declares, "I always try to ignore the tradition. I want to do plays as if they're being performed for the first time.


"I have never even seen a production of 'Boris Godunov,'" he laughs. "Not even the opera. I did see a ballet of it in Petersburg once. It had lots of bells in it. But, if you know a play too well, you run the risk of not being able to really see it."


Donnellan admits he would like to see Yury Lyubimov's production of "Godunov" at the Taganka Theater, but only after his own show opens.


Pushkin's play observes the making and unmaking of tsar Boris Godunov who reigned shortly during the Time of Troubles in the early 16th century. Donnellan suggested that the figure of Godunov "is very much like Macbeth f a good man undone by success. If he hadn't become tsar, he wouldn't have been undone by what he had to do to become the tsar."


What "undoes" Godunov, Donnellan said, is either the knowledge or at least the suspicion that he is the one who had the legitimate heir to the throne, Dmitry, murdered in infancy.


"The reality of human guilt is that it is just out of sight. Godunov doesn't know where it's going to come up and get him," he said.


Performing the title role will be Alexander Feklistov, a member of the troupe of the Chekhov Art Theater. Feklistov was also seen in the role of Claudius in Peter Stein's production of "Hamlet" last season and is starring in "Servants and the Snow" at the Satirikon Theater.


Donnellan won't go so far as to discuss what Feklistov's Godunov might be like, but he admitted he is a flexible director who gives his actors room to move. He explained he does not have a set notion of what he wants to do before he goes in to do it.


"I open up to the situation and react to it as opposed to having a set agenda," he said. "I can't describe what Feklistov is doing. It's an organic, human thing."


The performances will take place on an elongated, elevated platform on the stage of the Gorky Art Theater. The spectators, also located on the stage, will sit on either side of the action. This, Donnellan said, will give the audience the sense of intimate close-ups when the actors work in the middle of the traverse while creating epic spaces at either end.


"I like theater that is human, human in proportion," Donnellan said. "I don't like it being about extraordinary people in extraordinary situations."


"Boris Godunov," a production of the International Confederation of Theater Associations, assisted by the British Council, plays at 7 p.m. Thursday to June 25 (except June 19 and 22) at the Gorky Art Theater, located at 22 Tverskoi Bulvar. Metro Pushkinskaya. Tel. 203-8773. For more information about the play, call the Confederation of Theater Associations at 229-7721.