Edinburgh Fringe review: I Killed Rasputin
Like legendary Russian mystic Grigori Rasputin, Richard Herring’s sixth foray into theatre is an enigmatic beast.
One third comedy, two thirds serious drama, it never quite feels as if it knows what it wants to be, but nevertheless the intelligent, well written script delivers an extremely informative and entertaining hour and a half of witty, educational dramedy…for want of a much better word.
If that makes it sound a bit ham fisted, don’t worry. It might not always hang together perfectly, but excellent performances by the likes of Nichola McAuliffe and Justin Edwards lift it above the sum of its parts.
Edwards plays the hulking, bearded wraith of Rasputin absolutely perfectly. His appearances are initially ominous, but are undercut with perfectly timed gags that wouldn’t be out of place in a Russian themed series of Blackadder.
However, the undisputed star of the show is veteran comedy actor Nichola McAuliffe who – in an inspired casting decision – plays deposed Prince Felix Felixovich Yusapov, the man who claimed to have killed Rasputin in 1916. He’s proud of his role in ridding the empire of what he described as a shadowy, evil figure with far too much influence with the Tsar, but who is treated a lot more sympathetically by the script and – to an extent – by historians.
The events of I Killed Rasputin take place in 1967. Prince Yusapov is now an elderly man clinging to the last remnants of his glory, but still peddling the story of how he killed Rasputin in an improbable ambush that included poisoned cakes, repeated shootings, occasional resurrection and an ignominious drowning: a story that plays itself out on stage in a fairly humorous section that makes full use of the set’s see through walls.
As subjects for plays go, Yusapov is pretty much perfect. A full account of Yusapov’s flamboyant lifestyle would fill several thousand pages, but here’s a summary: as a youth, he enjoyed dressing as a woman and singing for men – once attracting the attention of King Edward VII. He once dressed his dog up as a prostitute and would occasionally walk the streets himself. In short, Yusapov not the most reliable narrator, so to cut through his various fictions and embellishments we’re introduced to EM Halliday, an American journalist played by LAMDA trained actor Joseph Chance.
The main bulk of the play’s narrative sees Halliday interviewing Prince Yusapov in an attempt to get to the bottom of what really happened to Rasputin. He won’t accept the Prince’s account as fact and neither will Rasputin’s ghost, who repeatedly appears in front of the addled, sleepy Prince, punctuating the performance with lighthearted fight scenes and comic asides that really shouldn’t work, but- like the rest of this slightly odd play- somehow do.
I Killed Rasputin is a strange mixture of fact, comedy and fiction that successfully deals with complex themes of historical uncertainty while still finding time to throw in a few muff jokes into the mix as well. It shouldn’t work, but it does. The Fringe is all about experimentation and new approaches to both comedy and theatre. In that respect, this peculiar play succeeds brilliantly.
Date of live review: 10 August 2014 @ Assembly George Square