THE RASPUTIN AFFAIR
THE RASPUTIN AFFAIR, Ensemble Theatre, 6-30 April 2017. Photography by Prudence Upton - above, Tom Budge, Zindzi Okenyo, Sean O’Shea, John Gaden and Hamish Michael; below, Okenyo and Budge; below again, O’Shea and Gaden
If you’d like to know more about the infamous Russian mystic Rasputin and quite how and why he’s portrayed in this new play by Kate Mulvany, you could do worse than to listen to Boney M’s eponymous 1978 disco hit. One of its choruses sums up the night of his murder in the winter of 1916:
“Ra ra Rasputin / Lover of the Russian queen / They put some poison into his wine. / Ra ra Rasputin / Russia's greatest love machine / He drank it all and he said ‘I feel fine’.”
And that’s the plot in a nutshell. It’s a bit true, a bit almost true, quite a bit imagined and quite a bit broad comedy.
The mystic and “holy” man from the remote village of Pokrovskoye (next stop Siberia) was so charismatic he came to the attention of the Czar and Czarina and in 1906 Nicholas wrote to a minister, “A few days ago I received a peasant from the Tobolsk district, Grigori Rasputin, who brought me an icon of St Simon Verkhoturie. He made a remarkably strong impression both on Her Majesty and on myself, so that instead of five minutes our conversation went on for more than an hour.”
Rasputin actually moved in, not only on the Romanoffs, but also on Russian politics and life and inevitably began to piss off those he didn’t charm. In The Rasputin Affair, Grand Duke Dimitri (Hamish Michael) is one of those because he’s been booted from his apartment in the royal palace in favour of the great man (Sean O’Shea). Dimitri arrives at the Moika Palace, home of Prince Felix, nickname Fifi, (Tom Budge) to take part in a scheme to do away with the hairy peasant.
Also there is Vladimir (John Gaden) a politician whose calling seems to be the recording of the “minutiae” for later sharing with the other members of the Duma. The men are tended by Fifi’s silent serving woman, Minya (Zindzi Okenyo). She turns out not to be mute and might be Irish or American until she is finally revealed as something else entirely.
As well as sex, it seems Rasputin was also partial to cakes and according to most histories, he got a lot of both while resident at the Romanoff court in St Petersburg. So it makes perfect sense that the plotters should decide to murder the not-a-monk with a pink iced cupcake injected with cyanide.
It’s well known and therefore no spoiler to say that attempt to poison Rasputin did take place and failed. And in this instance the cupcake didn’t work although Rasputin ate half of it, so the gang eventually resorts to pistols and an Oriental rug (not simultaneously). Before this however, Vlad has had to be forcibly restrained from guzzling the baked goods as he has a sweet tooth and little common sense. Prince Felix has come close to a nervous breakdown and Minya has grown ever more formidable as the men collapse in unrelated heaps.
John Sheedy directs and that means 120 minutes of deftly steering each member of the cast through various doors, hidden and otherwise, when they’re not appearing in picture frames displayed on the prince’s study wall. (An ingenious, effective set by Alicia Clements with essential collaborative lighting by Matthew Marshall.)
The actors are among the best that could be assembled for such an enterprise. John Gaden is a master of sly comedy and it’s on display here to glorious effect. Hamish Michael combines studied charm and oleaginous rage so well it’s a wonder he doesn’t leave a silver trail behind him. Tom Budge has the crazed impotence (although of course he’s not) and feverish ineffectuality of a young Rik Mayall, while Zindzi Okenyo is in every moment with deceptive ease and imperceptible concentration. Excellent company.
Whether or not The Rasputin Affair entirely works is harder to say. Catching up with it at the Sunday matinee meant an audience that sat stony-faced through much of the bawdy mayhem when not asleep or in undetected comas. It was also unfortunate to be sitting next to a woman who ostentatiously scribbled notes throughout when not shuffling her loose sheets of paper – just in case we didn’t get how important were her thoughts. Grrrr.
As it is, The Rasputin Affair is clever, bonkers and a lot funnier than it played – to a dead house. Not convinced by the ending, but beguiled by the performances and the sheer verve of the ideas, text and actors. Recommended.