It takes a fair bit of courage to open a new London venue with a play about the honour of Russia given the current political situation; but that is what we have in Dmitry, currently playing at the Marylebone Theatre.
Boris Godunov (who comes across as a bit of a Claude Littner-type business brain) has assumed the throne of Russia after ordering the palace of the late Ivan the Terrible ransacked and his son and heir Dmitry killed.
In the Polish parliament, an uneasy peace has existed with Russia despite the tyranny, but when a young man arrives and proclaims himself the true heir, who can we believe?
With the help of a huge Cossack army (led by, it has to be said, a comedy leader with beard and incomprehensible accent), this Dmitry pursues his aim against conflicting testimonies in this lengthy political thriller.
There are moments and performances which catch fire – the displaced dowager Tsarina (Poppy Miller), in her convent, is a complex characterisation deftly played; the duplicitous Cardinal (James Garnon) who hides behind the will of Rome is very good; and even Godunov (Daniel York Loh) has his moments despite seeming to belong a few centuries later than everyone else.
Dmitry should be a key tragic hero in a piece like this – a man of destiny who can demand belief and devotion. Sadly I found Tom Byrne’s pretender came up short, often speaking too fast and not convincing in the trappings of power. This Dmitry is a decent man who wants to do good: nothing more or less.
The set of wood-panel and furniture feels opulent and rich, even when the backdrop for scenes of battle. The old stage convention of ghosts rising from and walking away from earthly bodies is employed on several occasions.
I found this effective, far more so than the odd music choices which rang from traditional music of the country to heavy rock riffs and even a touch of Borodin. There is even an incongruous moment of dancing at Godunov’s court!
Where Tim Supple’s production staggers a bit is in not knowing whether to be in period or modern; to seek laughs or play completely serious. Characters often fail to interact in group scenes with some standing by, underused.
I appreciate the questions of tyranny and power are timeless and universal, and this play underlies that by each shifting scene, but for me there was an overreach which made Dmitry less powerful than it should have been.
The personal behind the political is where this production really works: Dmitry’s mother searching the eyes of this man who says he was her murdered boy; the touching embrace between majesty and religion which turns sour; the last moments of a wounded soldier.
This is a truly ambitious piece of theatre with which to open a new fringe venue, and a monster at close to three hours (including interval). The lighting by Jackie Shemesh and sound by Max Pappenheim is superbly executed throughout.
Audacious, yes, but in capturing the essence of Schiller’s unfinished Demitrius and bending the historical record (quite rightly for a play staged in the Rudolf Steiner Institute’s space), playwright Peter Oswald has written a pertinent piece which warns that little changes where dictators rule.
Dmitry is playing at the Marylebone Theatre until 5 November: purchase your tickets here.
Image credit: Ellie Kurttz