If only a fraction of the stories that swirl around the death of Grigori Rasputin are true, the assassination of the Russian mystic by a conspiracy of noblemen could be described as amateurish at best.

A failed poisoning, multiple gunshot wounds, beatings and suggestions that Rasputin may only have actually died by drowning after he was rolled up in a carpet and hurled off a bridge – this is the stuff of farce. And it is the story’s farcical elements – rendered even more absurd by the huge ramifications of those events on the history of the 20th century – that actor and playwright Kate Mulvany mines in her new play The Rasputin Affair, which had its world premiere at the Ensemble Theatre last night.

Kate Mulvany's The Rasputin Affair at The Ensemble TheatreJohn Gaden, Tom Budge, Zindzi Okenyo and Hamish Michael in Kate Mulvany’s The Rasputin Affair. Photos © Prudence Upton

Set in a portrait-lined room of the Moika Palace on December 29, 1916, with a hoard of Bolshevik protestors rapidly approaching, a trio of nervous noblemen plot the death of the mystic, whose influence on the Tsar and Tsarina – not to mention his influence on Russia’s role in World War I – is causing them all various kinds of personal and political grief.

Leading the band is Prince Felix – or Fifi – Yusupov, in a high-energy handwringing, vein-popping performance by Tom Budge. He is joined by right-wing politician Vladimir Purishkevich – Vlad – (played by John Gaden) who dodderingly attempts to document the assassination with camera and notebook – if he can keep his hands off the poisoned pink cupcake they hope to entice Rasputin into eating. Vlad’s flashing camera – part of Matthew Marshall’s effective lighting design – provides punctuation and structure to often manic scenes. Hamish Michael rounds out the trio as the Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovich – cousin to the Tsar – played as an English aristocratic type, ever complaining about the “bloody Bolshies”.

As they plan the assassination they are waited on by Minya – a maid with dark glasses, regularly summoned and commanded by Felix’s supercilious bell-ringing – played with chameleon-like flexibility by Zindzi Okenyo, who adopts and sheds personas and accents at a moment’s notice as the plot thickens.

Kate Mulvany's The Rasputin Affair at the Ensemble TheatreAlica Clements set provides plenty of opportunity for physical comedy

Full of false walls and hidden doors, Alicia Clements’ sumptuous set bursts with possibilities – surprise entries and exits abound and the portraits that line the wall open to create upper rooms for plots and trysts, not to mention plenty of opportunities for physical comedy. Minya erupts out of the openings to deliver the ever increasing number of war-dead, keeping the hapless conspirators in a state of constant anxiety as they await Rasputin’s arrival.

While Mulvany milks loads of comedy from the bumbling, terrified would-be assassins, she draws out the complexities of her characters as each begins to shed the costumes (figurative and literal) they’ve donned to create or obscure parts of themselves, and an intricate web of relationships emerges between the players.

Kate Mulvany's The Rasputin Affair at the Ensemble TheatreSean O’Shea as Rasputin

And at the centre of this whirlwind is Rasputin. Robed in black, a well-bearded Sean O’Shea conveys a sense of the ridiculous in the mystic’s rambling pronouncements and bizarre story-telling, but he also exudes an improbably seductive power and charisma that give credence to his orgiastic ‘curings’ and his wide-ranging influence.

Kate Mulvany's The Rasputin Affair

Director John Sheedy makes sure the action is fast-paced and the mood intense – almost relentlessly so – and perhaps a little more breathing room at times might have given the climactic moments a bit more punch, but this is a show that entertains all the way through. The characters give personal voice to the competing factions, stories and troubles that plagued a country in the middle of a war and on the eve of revolution – but while it draws attention to the tragic ironies of the Russian political situation in 1916, The Rasputin Affair bends them to the service of comedy in a smart, funny and fast-paced farce that picks up the foibles of history and runs with them.

Kate Mulvany’s The Rasputin Affair is at the Ensemble Theatre until April 30


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