The Marylebone Theatre is an unexpected new addition to London’s theatre scene. A 220-seat venue located in Rudolf Steiner Hall, it’s been knocking around for years (Alec Guinness put on a play here in 1939!) but has now suddenly become a producing venue.
And ‘Dmitry’ is an unexpected first play. An unfinished Friedrich Schiller drama completed by playwright Peter Oswald, it’s the sort of show you might expect to see at the National Theatre on a megabudget or at the Almeida with a starrier cast or creatives. As it is, ‘Dmitry’ has a cast of 17 very respectable actors, directed by former Young Vic boss Tim Supple. On payroll alone it’s clearly not cheap – it seems almost inconceivable it could break even on ticket sales, and is presumably being subsidised by somebody or other – but neither does it have the funds behind it to push into being the sort of sweeping spectacle Schiller’s epic storyline demands.
Those caveats accepted, ‘Dmitry’ is engrossing stuff. The name refers to Dmitry Ivanovich, the youngest son of Ivan the Terrible, who’d been thought assassinated as a child of the orders of Ivan’s successor, Boris Godunov. But as the play begins, the character played by Tom Byrne genuinely believes himself to be Dmitry, the rightful heir to the Russian throne. He has come before the Polish Parliament and James Garnon’s scheming Cardinal Odowalsky to raise an army to march on Moscow. The scheming Poles have spied opportunity, for Poland and for the Catholic Church. They’re joined by ten thousand ferocious Cossack horsemen led by Jonathan Oliver’s scary Castellan. And when the real Dmitry’s mother Maria is retrieved from a convent to give her blessing to the young pretender, his path to czardom seems assured. But is he who he thinks he is?
A quick glance at Wikipedia will sort that out for you. And you may possibly be familiar with Pushin’s ‘Boris Godunov’, which tells the same events from the Russian side. But as the name suggests. Schiller plus Peter Oswald tell the story from the perspective of Dmitry and his enablers, and at best it makes for a gripping, multilayered, psychologically complex anatomy of shifting human powerplay. One of the most remarkable episodes in Russia’s not-exactly-dull history, it has the scope of a ‘Julius Caesar’ or ‘Richard III’, and Supple tells it with lean, unflashy momentum.
But despite some fine actors in the cast, the script lacks memorable characters. In particular, Dmitry himself feels like there could be a lot more to him: nothing wrong with Byrne’s performance, but he’s written as nice young man somewhat overwhelmed by his situation… and that doesn’t really change. The plot is gripping, but the characters never live up to the events they’re living through.
It’s an odd thing to launch your theatre with what is essentially a curio. But this is probably the only chance you’ll ever get to see a production of ‘Dmitry’, and at the very least it’s a cracking story, entertainingly told.