In marked contrast to the UK’s recent smooth transition from one monarch to another, the story of Dmitry (Tom Byrne), at the new Marylebone Theatre, tells a woeful tale of power-grabbing, plotting, deceits and lies, bloody battles, assassinations, divisions and families torn apart.
Heavy with debate and denies emotional attachment
It takes place during a period known as The Troubles, a time of unrest in Russia that grew out of political and religious rivalry in the years between the death of Czar Fyodor I, the last of the Rurik dynasty, in 1598, and the election of Michael I, in 1613, whose Romanov dynasty would rule until 1917.
Priests, prelates, patriarchs and pretenders all play their part along with the machinations of the grieving Maria, the alleged mother of Dmitry (Poppy Miller) and the manipulations of people with power and influence. Dimitry comes through all of this with the help of his Polish allies but enjoys (if that is the word) only eleven months as Czar from July 1605 to May 1606 when he was killed by armed crowds who had accessed the Kremlin and ousted him onto the streets.
Schiller’s last play is an unfinished composition that writer Peter Oswald has crafted into a full-length work of some two hours and forty-five minutes. It has a complex plot that is rooted in the events of the day, some details of which are more reliable than others. Oswald has chosen his version of the past to form a coherent tale of events combined with some artistic licence to mould a grand work that at times has the air of Shakespearean histories and tragedies.
It is to Poland, where he grew up after escaping Russia, that the young Dimitry turns for help in asserting the legitimacy of his claim to be the rightful Czar as the son of Ivan the Terrible. Contrary to popular belief at the time, he asserts that he was not murdered as a child, but that another was substituted for him and that he grew up sheltered in a monastery. His words convince the Polish authorities who take up arms on his behalf against Moscow and the incumbent czar, Boris Gudonov. On the international stage that is not just an opportunity for aggrandisement on the part of Poland and a chance to quash Russia’s territorial threats, but also a religious war that has the backing of the Pope, who is keen to return Orthodox Russia to the Catholic fold, which initially Dmitry consents to, having been raised within the western faith.
As the leaders conspire a more personal and agonising note is introduced as Dimitry’s mother, still mourning the loss of her son years after she believed him to have been killed, is confronted with the sight of the young pretender and must decide whether he really is her offspring or not. Her vacillations and ultimate cover-up in this matter raise questions of personal integrity and honesty as well as the old chestnut of whether the ends justify the means and how far people are prepared to go for personal gain. Legitimate or not, the Poles have a figurehead and those opposed to Gudonov are prepared to use him to further their cause.
Director Tim Supple has valiantly grappled with this lengthy work and its cast of fifteen. The result is a production that is heavy with debate and denies emotional attachment. There is a lot of listening to arguments and claims with the opportunity to ponder on how convincing they are or whether you would have gone along with the lines of action adopted. Moral judgments can be made but there is nothing that inspires allegiance to one side or the other. It’s an interesting story, but not one enlivened by the triumph of good over evil or right over wrong.