Assembly George Square, Edinburgh Fringe, EM Halliday, Grigori Rasputin, History, I Killed Rasputin, Joseph Chance, Justin Edwards, Nichola McAuliffe, Prince Felix Yusupov, Richard Herring, Russia, Theatre Review
Grigori Rasputin, the shaman charlatan who had the ear of the Tsarina, was assassinated in mysterious circumstances in 1916. According to legend, he died many times before his death, as his exasperated assassins fed him cyanide-laced cakes and wine, shot him multiple times, clubbed him and possibly administered a complimentary castration, before drowning him in the Nevka River. Naturally, Rasputin resurfaced, his murderers having forgotten to weight the corpse.
Foremost amongst the assassins was the effete court intriguer Prince Felix Yusupov, and you might think that his handiwork only demonstrates how completely useless aristocrats are. Yusupov probably couldn’t brush his own teeth without three servants assisting him and so how could he hope to carry out a whole murder by himself? Little steps man! Yet Richard Herring’s new play “I Killed Rasputin,” which is now showing at the George Square Theatre, makes the case that the reality behind the murder is just as entertaining as the legend. By the end of the play, we are left to puzzle over whether the killing was a murky crime of passion or a conspiracy sponsored by British intelligence.
Herring is most famous as a comedian, although he has written five previous plays and one about Rasputin (1993’s Ra Ra Rasputin). He once appeared on Celebrity Mastermind and chose Rasputin as his speciality. He is, in other words, not giving up the day job and it becomes quickly apparent that “I Killed Rasputin” knows its stuff rather than merely constituting a celebrity frolic. The play is an elaboration upon a 1967 film in which Yusupov appeared (in the year of his death) to reiterate his loathing of Rasputin. Setting the play in 1967, and recruiting Nichola McAuliffe as the elderly Yusupov, may seem to impose random obstacles upon the story, but they actually establish a judicious route straight into it.
As a comedian, Herring is most comfortable with farce and, as a farce, his play functions without a hitch. The setting is a French apartment with some surrealist glamour, a chessboard floor and a doleful cartoon dog. The energetically grand and doddery Yusupov is being interviewed by the impatient journalist EM Halliday (Joseph Chance). Both characters end up swirling weightlessly in the middle of a smart, fast-paced narrative, juggled along with the history by servants and ghosts who issue from every door and pop up at the windows.
There are lots of good jokes, such as when the homosexual Yusupov reveals that he was attracted to his wife because she looked just like her father. But “I Killed Rasputin” is trying to have its cake and eat it, or at least to swallow both the cake and the cyanide, in combining the farce with a sincere review of the history. The history is already fascinating and the comedy does not add any extra colour to it. It rarely gets in the way, but there are moments when you yearn wistfully for the caricatures to appear in human form.
Another, rather contrary criticism is that this production’s Rasputin (Justin Edwards) is a bit too fresh and laundered. In every photograph from the Tsar’s court, Rasputin is hideously creepy: a glistening figure, with matted hair and unhinged eyes, who looks like he has scuttled out of a sewer. Herring’s Rasputin is a virile giant and, although we have here abandoned objective criticism for personal preference, I wanted something extra or possibly familiar. In undermining Yusupov’s tall tale, we are in danger of doing away with the traditional “mad” Rasputin, a thing of horror.