A top flight cast are powering the premiere of Kate Mulvany's madcap play about inept assassins and a Machiavellian mastermind
In the immortal words of Boney M, religious charlatan (ra-ra) Rasputin “ruled the Russian land”. At the dawn of the 1900s, the Russian mystic had an unbelievable amount of influence in the court of Tsar Nicholas II, and a tonne of sexual dalliances of dubious consent with women across the country. He claimed he could heal young Alexei, the haemophiliac heir to the throne, and became extremely close with the boy’s mother, Tsarina Alexandra. When Tsar Nicholas II was away on the battlefield in 1915, it’s believed that Rasputin was essentially running the country.
Enter, as our friends Boney M said, “some men of higher standing” with plans to assassinate.
That’s where Kate Mulvany’s new high-energy comedy, The Rasputin Affair, begins: with three men of higher standing, a woman, and a cupcake full of cyanide.
The three men are Felix (Tom Budge), Vlad (John Gaden), and Dimitri (Hamish Michael) – fictionalised versions of the Prince, Grand Duke and politician who together cooked up a plot to kill Rasputin in 1916. The woman is Minya (Zindzi Okenyo), who is both crucial to the murder business and also entirely fictional.
Mulvany’s nobles are foppish and prone to hysteria. Felix is effete and immature; Dimitri is astonishingly self-important; and Vlad just wants to a) get the glory from the killing and b) eat the cupcake. Minya’s obedience only stretches so far; she comes when Felix rings the bell for her, but her sneer is never too far away. Her character takes a few twists and turns throughout the play, and though you might think you know her secret, the reveal may surprise you.
Audience members who know their history will know that Rasputin (a luxuriously wigged and bearded Sean O’Shea) did indeed die that night, at the hands of these men – but the team (with the exception of Minya) is so laughably incapable of action that you’d never imagine they could really pull it off.
Mulvany’s farce, directed by John Sheedy, sets a cracking pace from the moment the lights go down and it doesn’t let up until it’s over (though there’s a brief pause for an intermission). It’s farce without the pathos, a buoyant and smartly sustained sketch that’s more concerned with comedy than historical fact or dramatic realism. The cast pop up in picture frames and enter and exit via a surprising amount of hidden doors on Alicia Clements’ ornate and appropriately palatial backdrop, and the ensemble are all giving remarkably energetic performances, if a little oversized for the intimate Ensemble space.
But because there’s little trace of recognisable human fear, or hurt, or danger – it’s all dialled up to 11 – the assassination antics don’t hold much risk, which saps essential momentum-driving tension from the plot; indignities are always funnier when the characters have dignity to start with. The second act leans a little too much on Felix’s rumoured homosexuality and cross-dressing as the butt of a barrage of jokes, but it’s never especially mean-spirited, and Mulvany does have some fun with subverting our expectations of what the other characters must think of Felix.
There’s a lot to be said for the chance to laugh at cupcakes and bumbling nobility, and it’s a bright, inconsequential piece of escapist fare, even with those dramaturgical quibbles; the overbearing performances will probably also recalibrate as the run continues and the actors settle into the play and their audiences. If you’re looking for a period-set laugh without having to learn a bunch of facts (say, if you’re all caught up on your History comedies, both Making and Drunk), this is for you.