On the night of his death Grigori Rasputin, the mad monk, was poisoned with petits fours and shot in the heart and the back. He did not die. After going outside into the snow he was shot in the head, then severely beaten. His hands were bound and his body thrown into a river. When the body was retrieved the bonds had been undone, he had attempted to make the sign of the cross and, after all that, died by drowning.
Obviously none of this is true, but I Killed Rasputin plays with fact and fiction – mostly fact actually – to try to determine what actually happened the night Felix Yusupov and co-conspirators tried to kill Rasputin. It is written by Richard Herring, probably best known for playing the role of Percy in the TV series Servants (oh, and he’s a prolific, multi-award-winning stand up comedian and former comedy partner of the great comedy lord Stewart Lee).
It is 1967. Yusupov, formerly the richest man in Russia, husband to the last Tsar’s niece, is still alive. A film is being made about his attempt to assassinate Rasputin, and an American journalist has come to find out the truth. Yusupov cannot rid himself of visions of the mad monk. Dialogue is structured either to build towards a punchline or to spark a long history lesson. Whenever Yusupov reminisces about an event in the past, that event is played out in Horrible Histories-style silliness, complete with false moustaches and prancing around, either on stage or behind a semi-transparent screen. Exposition comes thick and fast, and often the play feels more like a lecture.
It is certainly an engrossing era to learn about and Rasputin must be one of the most enigmatic characters in recent history, but Herring seems keen to ensure that the audience knows how much research he’s done for the play. By his own account Yusupov was a transvestite and bisexual, and in this he is played by a woman – Nichola McAuliffe. She comes across as a sometimes sweet, sometimes snippy old man desperately clinging to “the goat he’s fucked”, the one thing in his life that made him notorious. His wife (Eileen Nicholas) has something of Downton’s dowager duchess about her, maintaining an indignant tone and a penchant for pith.
No one could ever really match Christopher Lee as Rasputin, but the towering Justin Edwards is an imposing stage presence. Herring’s debut play is odd. It is traditional in many ways, certainly in terms of staging and structure, but there is a strange combination of farce (particularly in the ridiculous characters of Vladimir and the maid) and something more serious. Yusupov, whether it is his voice or chalked face or whether it is some still extant essence of Rasputin in the ether, gets under the skin.
I Killed Rasputin is at Assembly George Square (Venue 8) until 24 August. For more information and tickets visit the EdFringe website.