Edinburgh Review: I Killed Rasputin

Rasputin

Assembly George Square Theatre

***

When it comes to Richard Herring’s plays I think I’m going to have to take a leaf out of Woody Allen’s script and say that I prefer the early, funny ones. Back when most Fringe 2014 performers were probably barely born Herring staged Ra-Ra-Rasputin, inspired by the Boney M song. This year’s I Killed Rasputin touches on the same Russian figure and treats him more seriously. There is still comedy, but only really as light relief.

Nichola McAuliffe plays ageing Russian Prince Felix Yusupov, who is interviewed by American journalist EM Halliday in Paris in 1967, half a century after the event. Halliday (Joseph Chance) wants to find out the truth. Did Yusupov really kill the seemingly almost indestructible “mad monk” with a combination of poison, bullets and drowning?

The drama takes us through a number of episodic interviews, each one peeling back a few more layers and telling us more about both Yusupov and Rasputin. Fantasy sequences feature Hitler and Stalin among those popping in and out of the action. Yusupov's wife turns out to be the last Tsar's niece. If you’ve been wondering why a woman plays the Prince it is because he was treated like a little girl when he was growing up. Though I briefly wondered if Herring cast McAuliffe because her first name rhymes with that product he is so fond of, Ricola.

I should add, at this stage, that I saw the play in the final preview before the press show. McAuliffe was excellent, but some of the acting was a little creaky. Maybe that will be ironed out. Despite the wig, cloak and height Justin Edwards felt a little miscast as Rasputin, but that may simply be because I couldn’t stop thinking of him as boozy children’s entertainer Jeremy Lion (whose own stomach is pretty indestructible). 

The problem is the balance of the script. It’s one of those stories where not much happens again and again. Halliday interviews Yusupov, who is haunted by Rasputin, to find out the truth. It seems like an unlikely story but maybe he did do it. And if he didn’t why does the ghost of Rasputin keep appearing. Or has Yusupov started to believe the legend himself?

Herring is a very talented, very funny writer but he seems to have reined himself in here in an effort to be taken more seriously. There is a bit of smutty innuendo and door-slamming farce, but not enough to make this a full-on comedy. In some ways I couldn’t help thinking that this would have been better if Herring had cast himself as Rasputin and played it more for laughs, but I presume that was never the intention. The result is more of a curiosity than a classic. If you only see one Herring show this year I suspect the stand-up would be more fun.

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