Reviews Edinburgh Published 14 August 2014

I Killed Rasputin

Assembly George Square ⋄ until 24th August 2014

The mad monk myth.

Tom Wicker

Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin still fascinates people, nearly a century after his death. The ‘mad monk’ and his relationship with Tsar Nicolas II and the ill-fated Russian royal family – assassinated in 1918, two years after his murder – have assumed mythic proportions. Rumours have swirled around his sexual prowess and turned him into a near-supernatural figure; historians have debated his role in the Russian revolution.

The legend of Rasputin has clearly sunk its hooks into writer and comedian Richard Herring, who’s taken it upon himself to explore the historically murky facts surrounding his death, allegedly at the hands of a self-confessing Prince Felix Yusupov. Set in 1967, the play takes place in Paris – where Yusupov and his wife escaped after the revolution – shortly before the premiere of I Killed Rasputin, the film famously based on the prince’s book Lost Splendour.

The tone here is one of scepticism studded with Marx Brothers-style comedy, as American journalist EM Halliday visits Yusupov to try to get to the heart of what really happened to Rasputin before his bullet-ridden body was dredged from a river. The likelihood is slim that he did – as reported by the prince – miraculously survive both cyanide poisoning and being shot before finally succumbing to being drowned. So what, or who, is Yusupov protecting?

The swirl of theories surrounding the answer to this question is genuinely engrossing – as is the debate articulated in the play as to whether Rasputin was a mad-eyed manipulator of the royal family or a much-slandered pacifist desperate to keep Russia out of the First World War. As various characters act as mouthpieces for a comprehensive range of different arguments, it’s clear that Herring’s research has been thorough.

The problem is that all this results in something dramatically inert in which the characters spend most of their time sitting around a table effectively repeating embellished Wikipedia entries. Herring spices things up with some funny one-liners and silent-movie-inspired farcical re-enactments of history, but with the exception of Yusupov, no one else has much substance. The real-life figure of Halliday is largely squandered as a device to prod the prince into revealing his backstory.

In some ways, this is almost a sketch show. Manic interludes featuring a rather pointless puppet dog and a sausage-clutching Hitler give the illusion of progress on stage – interrupting the play’s history lesson about living conditions and the rich/poor divide in Russia. These are diverting but ultimately superfluous; and while a ghostly Rasputin’s slapstick appearances are amusing, scenes like a delusional Yusupov kneeing him in the balls are tonally all over the place next to earnest info-dumping discussions of his reputation.

One of the play’s redeeming features is Nichola McAuliffe’s perfectly pitched performance as the aged Yusupov. She conveys a gruff femininity as he reminisces fondly about dressing up as a girl as a child, boasts about being eyed up by Edward VII and leers at the handsome Halliday. She succeeds in imbuing the prince with rollicking hubris but also humour and pathos. She and Eileen Nicholas as the prince’s wife make for a compellingly out-of-their-time couple.

The story of Rasputin and his death exerts a pull of its own, and there’s a delicious irony in the fact that Yusupov’s unbelievable version of events succeeded in keeping alive the memory of the man he claimed to have tried so hard to kill. But the play’s static nature and tonal inconsistency make for an ultimately unsatisfying theatrical experience.


Tom Wicker

Tom is a freelance writer and editor, based in London. He has acted in the past, but the stage is undoubtedly better off without him on it. As well as regularly contributing to Exeunt and, he reviews for Time Out, has reviewed Broadway productions for The Telegraph. He has also written for The Guardian and the online world affairs magazine openDemocracy.

I Killed Rasputin Show Info

Written by Richard Herring




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