I Killed Rasputin review
Assembly George Square Theatre
By Andrzej Lukowski Sun Aug 10 2014
The Fringe phenomenon of stand-up comedians deciding that performing at Edinburgh in August makes them playwrights by osmosis tends not to end very well â€“ as a rule of thumb any piece of theatre written by or starring your favourite comic is best avoided. But there are exceptions, and Iâ€™m happy to report that this new historical comedy from obsessive compulsive funnyman and diarist Richard Herring is one.
His fifth and most ambitious play, â€™I Killed Rasputinâ€™ is not flawless, but it has at least three things clearly going for it. The first is that itâ€™s genuinely illuminating of a small but fascinating piece of twentieth century history: the life of the Russian nobleman Felix Yusupov, who assassinated the â€˜Mad Monkâ€™ Grigori Rasputin and went on to exile in Paris, living there until his death in 1967, a ghost of Imperial Russia in the Swinging Sixties.
Taking the shape of an interview between the elderly Yusukov and a cocky American journalist determined to discover the truth about Raspitinâ€™s notoriously murky demise, Herringâ€™s play is inescapably heavy on the exposition but itâ€™s all pretty interesting â€“ I had no idea that the reason films carry a disclaimer stating â€˜this is a work of fictionâ€™ is because Yusupov successfully sued MGM over a dodgy fictionalised version of his wife in the 1932 film â€˜Rasputin and the Empressâ€™.
The second thing going for it is an excellent performance from Nichola McAuliffe as a fruity old Yusupov, living a life of comfortable self-aggrandisement in Paris, albeit haunted by Rasputin, a ghost he has created by his unwillingness to let the legend around the monkâ€™s famously murky death die. The cross gender casting and ghostly face makeup is a minor masterstroke â€“ drawling away fruitily like the shade of Quentin Crisp, McAuliffe is literally otherworldly, an alien beamed down to â€™60s Paris, a folkloric figure alive long after her time.
And thirdly, itâ€™s a funny piece of writing â€“ McAuliffeâ€™s Yusupov is a surprisingly sad, even tragic figure, but around her Herring and director Hannah Banister allow merry havoc to break out in the numerous expository flashbacks (Joanna Griffinâ€™s turn as Adolf Hitler is particularly amusing).
The relative inexperience of both Herring as playwright and Banister as director perhaps means â€˜I Killed Rasputinâ€™ isnâ€™t as emotionally fleshed out as it could be, and the veteran McAuliffe is left to provide most of the depth and soul. Itâ€™s constantly on the verge of making a good point about how a constructed reality can become a prison, but it doesnâ€™t really seriously go for it until the last 30 seconds, by which time itâ€™s a bit late, really. But youâ€™ll learn a lot more and laugh a lot more from â€˜I Killed Rasputinâ€™ than at a lot of theatre at the Fringe â€“ this comedianâ€™s play is no folly.
By Andrzej Lukowski