Review: The Rasputin Affair (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Apr 1 – 30, 2017
Playwright: Kate Mulvany
Director: John Sheedy
Cast: Tom Budge, John Gaden, Hamish Michael, Zindzi Okenyo, Sean O’Shea
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Rasputin, the divisive and enigmatic figure of early 20th century Russia, remains a figure of contention in Kate Mulvany’s new play. The self-proclaimed “holy man” found himself at the centre of political upheaval through his association with the Tsar royalty, but his position as a religious leader has kept his contribution to social unrest of the time, ambiguous and mysterious. The Rasputin Affair is about the mounting outrage surrounding his rise to power, and assassination attempts led by members of the aristocracy.

A work of comedy, it lampoons archaic personality types and pokes fun at the hypocrisy of religious organisations. There are striking similarities to Molière’s Tartuffe, although the burden of history weighs heavy on Mulvany, whose efforts at providing background information detract significantly from the play’s entertainment quotient. John Sheedy’s direction is often imaginative, but even though his embellishments are delightful, the plot can seem needlessly convoluted, particularly in the first act. Staging becomes much more jaunty post-interval, as the production shifts gear and develops a broader, more appealing approach to its comedy.

Alicia Clements’ vibrant set design contributes beautifully to laughs, along with Matthew Marshall’s lights that give the imagery its finesse. It is an animated cast, particularly memorable in sequences that allow a bolder performance style. Sean O’Shea has just the right charisma, and theatrical sarcasm, for Rasputin. Dangerous, powerful and cryptic, we perceive his allure, as well as his disingenuity, and come to an understanding of the controversial qualities of the legendary character.

The separation of church and state is a familiar concept, but religious beliefs remain chronically ingrained in systems that rule our daily lives. The men who lead religious groups are never democratically elected, yet their influence on policies and ideology are resolutely tenacious. The Rasputin Affair is concerned with corruption, inspired by stories from a hundred years ago. With the inordinate amount of talk about feuding religions in our media, we must not cease to question the extent of their interference on our civil autonomy, whichever gods we have chosen to believe in.

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