Declan Donnellan is bringing Boris Godunov to New York
For the British theater director Declan Donnellan, few power dynamics are as richly theatrical as the maneuvering at the Kremlin. Even White House officials aren't quite sure whether President Dmitry A. Medvedev or Prime Minister (and former President) Vladimir V. Putin is really running Russia, and political machinations there often carry whiffs of backstage intrigue.
Mr. Donnellan has been personally fascinated by the evolving Russian state ever since the era of perestroika in the late 1980s; as a barrister-turned-director, he finds keen resonance in the intersection of theater and the rule of law. For years now he has explored Russia's stormy history in his critically renowned production of Aleksandr Pushkin's Boris Godunov, an epic play about the elaborate plotting and scheming after the death of Ivan the Terrible.
"I thought Boris Godunov was a 19th-century play with tremendously modern themes and power, a way into examining the legitimacy of Russian rulers and the legitimacy of power," Mr. Donnellan said.
His Boris had its premiere at the Chekhov International Theater Festival in 2000 and has been restaged in France, Germany, Brazil and elsewhere. The Lincoln Center Festival has sought to mount the work for years in a space that suited Mr. Donnellan's requirements. With the festival now using the Park Avenue Armory as a theater, Boris Godunov has its New York premiere on Wednesday night and runs until Sunday.
During an interview in his home in north London, which opens onto the Hampstead Heath gardens, Mr. Donnellan, 55, described his long fascination with Russia, which he first visited in the mid-1980s, before the Soviet Union's collapse.
"There is such an incredible theatrical history in Russia that the West doesn't fully realize – from long periods of censorship to the 60 theaters that exist in Moscow today, to the fact that being an actor there is seen as a very noble profession," Mr. Donnellan said. "And there are these Russian works such as Boris that some have called unstageable because they seem so massive in scale."
Boris Godunov, which is being performed in Russian with an English translation projected onto screens, is about the czar of the title, who assumed power after the death of Ivan the Terrible in 1584 amid much scheming and deaths of rivals. The central conflict is about the political threat posed by a monk who pretends to be the rightful heir to the throne and seeks to overthrow Boris with military might.
"It's a play with huge historical events, but I believe we found a way of staging it that shows the power of Pushkin's story and his critique of Russia," Mr. Donnellan said.
Nigel Redden, the director of the Lincoln Center Festival, said he had wanted to work with Mr. Donnellan ever since seeing his critically praised production of Lope de Vega's play Fuente Ovejuna at the National Theater in London 20 years ago. As in many of his productions, Mr. Donnellan kept sets, props and stage movement to a minimum to help the audience focus on the 17th-century play's exploration of tyranny and oppression in the story of an uprising in a Spanish village.
"There aren't that many productions that stick in my mind two decades later," Mr. Redden said. "I loved how it was done very simply and how he really respected the text. What makes him special, I think, is his ability to use relatively simple means to achieve a very theatrical effect, such as lighting or the suggestion of a set to suggest something more elaborate."
Mr. Donnellan is best known in England as the co-artistic director of Cheek by Jowl, the theater company that he created in 1981 with his personal and professional partner, Nick Ormerod, who does the scenic designs for many of their productions. They formed the company as a counterpoint to the large British national theater companies that had long been led by an older generation – and after Mr. Donnellan realized that a career as a lawyer was not for him.
"I acted all the time when I was young, and I preferred theater, but like many people in their early 20s, I thought I needed to make money, and I thought working in law made sense," Mr. Donnellan said. "But I started to mature a bit, and I realized I needed to change. And happily, being a director does not require all the years of school and training that the law did."
Mr. Donnellan came to wider prominence in the theater in 1989 when Richard Eyre, the successor to Peter Hall as artistic director of the National Theater, appointed him as an associate director. He joined other associates like Howard Davies and Nicholas Hytner (now the National's artistic director) in staging what Mr. Donnellan called "classic works whose stories and text would be relevant for modern audiences," as well as contemporary work.
An all-male Russian-language production of Twelfth Night, which Mr. Donnellan directed for the Chekhov Festival, transferred to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2006 and received rapturous reviews. Ben Brantley, writing in The New York Times, called the production "blissful."
The Lincoln Center Festival had long been interested in staging this Boris Godunov, but the production's physical requirements – the audience seating on two sides of the stage – meant it did not fit into the festival's usual performance spaces. Last year, however, once the Park Avenue Armory became air-conditioned, the festival began using it, and Mr. Redden and Mr. Donnellan agreed that the space was a good fit.
Mr. Donnellan said he was thrilled to bring Boris to New York audiences at last, especially at a time – after President Obama's recent trip to Moscow – when Western curiosity about Russia and its leadership is once more running high.
"I think it's important as a director to test your humanity by uprooting yourself, to work in different places and see work in new ways, and I feel that's true for audience members as well," he said. "I do hope that Boris Godunov stands as a compelling piece for audiences in New York and elsewhere to think about Russia."