Peter Oswald after Friedrich Schiller
In 1591, Dmitry Ivanovitch, the youngest son of Russian Tsar Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible), died under questionable circumstances. Did he accidentally cut his own throat or, as his mother Maria claimed, was he murdered on the orders of Boris Godunov, who became Tsar on the death of Dmitry’s elder brother Tsar Feodor? Or did they actually kill the wrong child and Dmitry survived?
That is the back-story to Schiller’s Demetrius, a play which he planned but he completed only the first part of his historical drama before he died. However, he left detailed notes for its planned completion and it is on these that, two centuries later, Peter Oswald has based his play, which now gets its première at the former Steiner Hall, now relaunched as the Marylebone Theatre and the home of a new theatre company.
Director Tim Supple and his designer Robert Innes Hopkins have staged it in modern dress, which inevitably emphasises the parallels in East-West politics between then and now.
It begins in the Polish Sejm, or parliament, where a young man arrives claiming to be Dmitry. He says another child was killed and he was spirited away to a monastery. Now he seeks Poland’s help in claiming his right to rule Russia.
Polish leader Prince Mnishek (Mark Hadfield) is for him, so is papal envoy Cardinal Odaolwalsky (James Garnon) eager to re-establish Roman Catholicism in Russia and, though a member of the Sejm expresses doubt and vetoes war with Russia, when Dmitry produces a jewel known to have been worn by the young prince, an army is mobilised. That jewel also convinves Dmitry’s mother Maria, who has been living as a nun, that this is her son. But what happens when Razin (Mark Hadfield), the monk who supposedly saved Dmitry, now tells a different story?
In sturdy verse, this is like one of Shakespeare’s history plays, shedding light on a period of Russian history you may not know about unless you are an opera buff (Mussorgsky’s Boris Gudonov includes some of the same story), and presenting the difficult choice of what you do if you find you are not whom you thought you were, or that a man isn’t the son or the husband you believed he was.
Here is a young man who promises fair rule; is that more important than the literal truth? But with Poland seeking to extend its influence, Cossacks to increase their power and an ex-Tsarina wanting to wreak revenge, history takes its course.
Inevitably, there is a lot of exposition, but when moments of action come, they are stunning, reinforced by Max Pappenheim’s music. There is strong playing from everyone, a couple of heavy accents emphasise the contention within a group. The verse is delivered at a cracking pace: and it is needed to keep the running time under three hours including an interval. Sometimes, Tom Byrne’s Dmitry is too fast for comprehension, but this is an open and honest performance that connects with the audience.
Aurora Dawson-Hunte makes Princess Marina, who marries Dmitry, a strong personality who can stand up to herself and Poppy Miller as Maria the widow Tsarina, so full of joy when she finds her son alive, captures the conflict within her when asked to swear on the Bible that he is truly Dmitry.
Clifford Samuel, playing Petushok, Dmitry’s loyal supporter though he knows all, delivers the verse particularly clearly and, in a play with few laughs, Phoebe Strickland gets some intended ones in a cameo as Lady Kirkbright, the Tsarevitch’s Latin-speaking governess from Edinburgh.
Dmitry isn’t on the same level as Peter Oswald’s versions of Schiller’s Mary Stuart and Don Carlos but it is a powerful piece. It has taken some time to find a stage, but this production serves it well, its final tableau a reminder that the Russian Church made a martyr of Dmitry.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton