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The Fringe phenomenon of stand-up comedians deciding that performing at Edinburgh in August makes them playwrights by osmosis tends not to end very well – as a rule of thumb any piece of theatre written by or starring your favourite comic is best avoided. But there are exceptions, and I’m happy to report that this new historical comedy from obsessive compulsive funnyman and diarist Richard Herring is one.
His fifth and most ambitious play, ’I Killed Rasputin’ is not flawless, but it has at least three things clearly going for it. The first is that it’s genuinely illuminating of a small but fascinating piece of twentieth century history: the life of the Russian nobleman Felix Yusupov, who assassinated the ‘Mad Monk’ Grigori Rasputin and went on to exile in Paris, living there until his death in 1967, a ghost of Imperial Russia in the Swinging Sixties.
Taking the shape of an interview between the elderly Yusukov and a cocky American journalist determined to discover the truth about Raspitin’s notoriously murky demise, Herring’s play is inescapably heavy on the exposition but it’s all pretty interesting – I had no idea that the reason films carry a disclaimer stating ‘this is a work of fiction’ is because Yusupov successfully sued MGM over a dodgy fictionalised version of his wife in the 1932 film ‘Rasputin and the Empress’.
The second thing going for it is an excellent performance from Nichola McAuliffe as a fruity old Yusupov, living a life of comfortable self-aggrandisement in Paris, albeit haunted by Rasputin, a ghost he has created by his unwillingness to let the legend around the monk’s famously murky death die. The cross gender casting and ghostly face makeup is a minor masterstroke – drawling away fruitily like the shade of Quentin Crisp, McAuliffe is literally otherworldly, an alien beamed down to ’60s Paris, a folkloric figure alive long after her time.
And thirdly, it’s a funny piece of writing – McAuliffe’s Yusupov is a surprisingly sad, even tragic figure, but around her Herring and director Hannah Banister allow merry havoc to break out in the numerous expository flashbacks (Joanna Griffin’s turn as Adolf Hitler is particularly amusing).
The relative inexperience of both Herring as playwright and Banister as director perhaps means ‘I Killed Rasputin’ isn’t as emotionally fleshed out as it could be, and the veteran McAuliffe is left to provide most of the depth and soul. It’s constantly on the verge of making a good point about how a constructed reality can become a prison, but it doesn’t really seriously go for it until the last 30 seconds, by which time it’s a bit late, really. But you’ll learn a lot more and laugh a lot more from ‘I Killed Rasputin’ than at a lot of theatre at the Fringe – this comedian’s play is no folly.
By Andrzej Lukowski