The Rasputin Affair Theatre review (Ensemble, Sydney)

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We’ll never really know what happened the night that Grigori Rasputin — the much-feared confidant of Tsar Nicholas II and self-proclaimed religious healer — was murdered by a group of Russian nobles.

The rumours about his poisoning and subsequent shooting are fairly wild; there are even claims that the killers severed his allegedly humungous penis.

But Rasputin’s life is just as mysterious as his death — little is known for certain about his early life as a peasant, his bizarre religious practices, nor his influence over Russian politics.

Kate Mulvany’s new play, The Rasputin Affair, takes all of that wonderful conjecture, and laces it with a dash of the playwright’s own imaginings, to create an often tremendously funny and intelligent comedy.

It’s not, strictly speaking, a farce, but it draws on that style of comedy, with revelation after revelation and broadly drawn performances.

The play takes place at the Moika Palace in Petrograd, on the fateful evening in December, 1916. Much of the first act centres around a very pretty pink cupcake, pumped full of cyanide, as our conspirators work to allay Rasputin’s (Sean O’Shea) suspicions and convince him to take a bite of the cupcake.

There’s the highly-strung and eccentric Prince Felix Yusupov (Tom Budge), the dashing but self-satisfied Duke Dmitri Pavlovich (Hamish Michael), and Vlad (John Gaden), loosely based on far-right politician Vladimir Purishkevich, there to document this historic evening.

The cupcake was made not by any of the men, but by Felix’s maid Minya (Zindzi Okenyo). She’s the only character with no real social standing in Russia, and it’s clear right from the start that she’ll prove to be more than meets the eye.

Mulvany’s play is gorgeously written, and she’s managed to bring these characters to life in ways that feel as authentic as they are comedic. She also pokes fun at the hypocritical preoccupations and snobbery of Russia’s nobility, and basically anybody who clumsily wields influence and power in any society.

I’m not convinced it’s paced or structured perfectly — the first act feels like a long tease to the moment at which Rasputin actually eats the cupcake, and could be trimmed back a little — but it’s an impressive work, melding history and laughs.

Director John Sheedy keeps the action rolling forward at a satisfying and fast pace, and works particularly well with the more physical elements of the comedy. And although the performances aren’t all pitched at the same level, the big ensemble scenes are a treat.

Alicia Clements’ extravagant, purple set is a wonderfully whimsical takes on late Tsarist Russia, allowing for plenty of quick entrances and exits, while her costumes are appropriately sleek.

Tom Budge puts his everything into Felix, and it’s a wonderfully comic and sharply observed performance. But it seems to be clearly a performance for a bigger theatre than Ensemble (although that may be partly down to opening night adrenaline).

John Gaden, by contrast, delivers an absolutely perfect, and comparably much smaller performance. Hamish Michael has all of Dmitri’s swagger and smarminess while Sean O’Shea is imposing and brilliantly grotesque as Rasputin himself.

Zindzi Okenyo proves herself to be quite the comedic chameleon as Minya, particularly when she’s able to break out of her shell.

As best as I can tell, Minya is an entirely fictional character, and a program note warns: “Although this play is based on true people and events, some events and characters in this play have been fictionalised and should not be construed as truth.”

Felix, on the other hand, was a very real person and was involved in multiple lawsuits over the course of his life regarding portrayals of Rasputin’s murder in film and on TV.

It’s difficult to say what he would’ve made of Mulvany’s salacious and somewhat scandalous play if he were still alive. But it’s safe to predict that Mulvany would have received a letter from his lawyer.

The Rasputin Affair is at Ensemble Theatre, Sydney until April 30. Featured image by Prudence Upton

5 responses to “The Rasputin Affair Theatre review (Ensemble, Sydney)

  1. I LOVED THIS PLAY!!
    I loved this interpretation of an historical event with many unknown facts
    I’ve signed up for every play past and present at the Ensemble.
    What’s more I’ve cancelled my subscription to STC. THEIR PLAYS ARE NOT A PATCH ON THE Ensemble’s.
    CONGRATULATIONS TO THE PLAYERIGHT SET DESIGNER AND ACTORS. I MIGHT EVEN SEE IT AGAIN

  2. I have been subscribing to the Ensemble for many years. Never before have I been tempted to leave at the interval as did several others from the audience.
    The set was great and used in a very creative way. I suppose it was clever.
    I personally found the interpretation of this event in history to be crude, and offensive.
    It was my mistake to want to support new work. I guess I’ll reconsider my subscription if this is a sign of things to come.

    1. I have just come home after seeing this play. I can’t disagree more with Kerrie’s comment. I’ve read various historical accounts of the
      Romanov dynasty and the lead up to the 1917 Russian Revolution. Life experience has taught me that there are many ways history is presented – purists never like interpretation but for me it can be an invitation to know more – it was a superb production.

  3. It was the upper class, especially the court, that took to Rasputin, particularly because of the apparently beneficial effect he had on the haemophiliac prince. But whether because of this or not, or whether it was true as rumoured that he was actually running the country, the tsar and his family were certainly divorced from the reality of life for millions of their subjects. It sounds like a very good play.

  4. If you read history you might find Rasputin was not a bad man at all. for instance he tried desperately to keep Russia out of WW1 and he did save the young prince on many occasions. The problem is, we are all incipient snobs and cannot believe that such a lowly peasant could have any good in him at all. It was the upper class that took Russia to war with the loss of millions of lives, but of course that was just a tragic mistake made by basically good men. The fact of the matter is that Rasputin was not a bad man and he ate the cyanide cake in a pathetically trusting manner.

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