Assembly, George Square Theatre, Edinburgh
As both a theatre-lover and a Richard Herring fan, it was obvious that I would attend this show. Less obvious was what I should expect. I know that Herring has written plays before, but I haven’t seen them. The poster looks rather solemn and serious; would the performance eschew all humour to focus on the history?
Of course not. While this piece is certainly informative, it’s entertaining too (“laughing and learning, folks”), and the ridiculousness of the story the world was supposed to swallow is cleverly exposed.
The casting is audacious, with Nichola McAuliffe in the lead role of Prince Felix Yusupov, playing up his notorious gender-bending reputation. McAuliffe is magnificent and Eileen Nicholas, as his arch wife, Irina, is the perfect foil, these two ‘older’ women easily commanding the stage. (Pay attention, Hollywood! Pay attention, BBC! Pay attention, everyone! Women who are over fifty can be wonderful. Write more parts for them!) In fact, the sheer brilliance of these two actors creates what, for me, is the only problem with the play: their combined charisma and charm means that they steal the show, and so the enigmatic Rasputin (Justin Edwards), appearing as a ghost to torment Yusupov, perhaps fails to make as much impact as he needs to, and it is, at times, hard to see how the Russian aristocracy could have been so beguiled by this relatively ordinary man. However, this is a minor quibble – and there’s plenty to relish in the performance, not least the multi-role playing and clever direction.
Overall, the play works very well, combining artful exposition with delightfully silly humour, and really helps to illuminate this fascinating moment in history.