The Rasputin Affair | Ensemble TheatreLeft – Tom Budge, Zindzi Okenyo, Sean O'Shea, Hamish Michael and John Gaden. Cover – Sean O'Shea. Photos – Prudence Upton

Fictionalised history is often a ripe source of inspiration for drama and comedy alike, imagining the goings-on that could have taken place “between the scenes” of what are established historical facts. Of course, one is not always dealing with what are even necessarily definitive events either, but rather widely-accepted rumours and myths – the stories everyone remembers, as opposed to what may or may not have actually taken place.

When it comes to infamous tall tales about historical figures who have been embellished over time, few in the early 20th Century would surpass Grigori Rasputin. This so-called “mad monk” was a mystic who gained a position of political influence over the Tsarist Royal family, became a figure of intense controversy, and was murdered soon before the Russian Revolution. Famous enough in his own right as a supposed Svengali of notoriously debauched reputation, one of the most legendary things about him were the stories of his death. Reportedly, Rasputin was consecutively poisoned, shot several times, beaten, castrated, wrapped in a carpet and thrown into a river, all of which he reputedly survived, before ultimately drowning.

These tales of the cultish preacher proving almost impossible to kill have combined with his fearsome appearance and political manipulations to inspire many representations over the last century of Rasputin in popular culture as having unusual abilities or even supernatural powers. Indeed, the real historical figure has even been appropriated as a kind of outlandish supervillain, vampire or sorcerer in many films, cartoons and comic books.

Actor-playwright Kate Mulvany (recently seen performing in the title role of Bell Shakespeare’s production of Richard 3) has leaned somewhat closer to historical truth than many of these outlandish fantasies, whilst herself still being little concerned with presenting verifiable historical accuracy in her comedic approach. Mulvany uses some of the known facts about Rasputin’s real-life assassination by a trio of noblemen as her basis, while also taking as read the possibly apocryphal story of the monk’s inordinately protracted death via surviving multiple successive methods of attempted murder. Peppering in a few other juicy historical rumours, Mulvany invents an uproariously funny narrative of the conspirators’ bumbling attempts to do away with the sinister faith healer who had seemingly taken over the Palace.

Reasoning that it was for the good of the Russian state to do away with this licentious charlatan who has used his influence to send the Tsar away to personally command the war effort, while at home worsening the discord between the Bolsheviks, peasants and aristocracy, the conspirators in Mulvany’s imagined version of events turn out to be far less patriotically motivated than they claim. All three are hiding ulterior motives for wanting Rasputin dead, which are each hilariously revealed in turn. Drawn into this is their housemaid, offered up to Rasputin in desperation when they fail to gather any of the society ladies whom they had promised would be in attendance to lure the lascivious Monk. She, however, may just be harbouring the biggest secrets of them all.

This is an extremely funny play, at turns satirical and wilfully silly in the extreme, ultimately bordering on farce, as these four rather loopy characters scheme and snipe and fret and fawn over each other in anticipation of Rasputin’s arrival. The tone is set from the very beginning, as they pray that their quarry can be convinced to eat the deliciously enticing pink-frosted cupcake they have so carefully poisoned for him. However, when the Mad Monk arrives, things go so spectacularly contrary to their plans that his surviving the lethal confectionary soon proves to be the least of their problems.

Staged with frenetic energy and performed with a heightened, even rather camp tone, the play is filled with some excellent sight-gags by way of their simple set, flanked by a backdrop of framed portraits of the Russian nobility. Many of these paintings reveal secret doors, peep-holes and portals, which are used not only for unexpectedly comedic entrances and exits, but also to depict flustered conversations happening in other rooms. These increasingly bizarre exchanges include some eventually quite surreal visuals, whereby characters supposedly standing right next to each other are situated in separate picture frames at extreme opposites of the stage, yet appear to touch or pass things to each other over an impossible distance. Director John Sheedy makes wonderful use of these apertures for inventive choreography, and as the anarchic energy mounts to scenes of orgiastic madness, the production becomes almost dreamlike, and riotously side-splitting.

The tight ensemble cast is excellent, and bounce off each other expertly. John Gaden exhibits his usual consummate comic timing as the somewhat addled right-wing politician Vlad, who keeps wanting to try the delicious-looking cupcake despite knowing that it is poisoned, while Hamish Michael is very funny as the pompous Grand Duke Dimitri, alternately childlike and conniving. Zindzi Okenyo as the maid Minya maintains a consistent hilarity across multiple surprising shifts in the nature of her role, and Tom Budge is impressively wacky as the preening, nervous host Prince Felix.

Perhaps most astonishing however is Sean O’Shea as Rasputin himself. Having seen O’Shea in many productions over the years, predominantly playing morally ambiguous or otherwise slimy supporting characters for the Bell Shakespeare Company, his metamorphosis here into the infamous Russian monk is quite startling. With a dominant posture, striking costuming and a very dramatic wig, O’Shea is transformed into the tall, overbearing, mesmerically charismatic and rather scary figure elsewhere immortalised in pop culture, but rarely bettered, I would wager. In addition to all this, mind you, he is howlingly funny, thanks in no small part to Mulvany’s sharp script, but to no lesser degree by his own consummate performance. It is quite something to behold.

The Rasputin Affair is a light yet biting historical comedy that rapidly goes down the rabbit hole of outrageous absurdity and just keeps accelerating until its inevitable, hilarious conclusion.

Ensemble Theatre presents
by Kate Mulvany

Director John Sheedy

Venue: Ensemble Theatre | 78 McDougall St, Kirribilli NSW
Dates: 6 – 30 April, 2017
Tickets: $42 – $71 (booking charges may apply)   
Bookings: 02 9929 0644 |

Most read Sydney reviews

Piano Mill’s success has been due to it offering an alternative means of experiencing fresh,...

Real estate is just dirt, when you boil it right down, and Mamet’s pedlars of property sure are...

The behaviour of the men is misogynous. The behaviour of men in authority menacing. The...

Drop cloth back drop and living statues in flesh linseed linen loincloth set the scene for Wendy...

David Ireland’s Ulster American hammers us with humour, hubris and hypocrisy.