Dmitry is a big, poetic drama dealing with Russia’s Time of Trouble at the beginning of the 17th century. The history of the period is convoluted, and the play by Peter Oswald with Alexander J. Gifford after Friedrich Schiller deals with the usurpation of the Russian crown and the wars of the period.
The play is the first production at the new Marylebone Theatre in London and my first question after seeing a performance was what persuaded Artistic Director Alexander J. Gifford to stage the play? It has a cast of more than thirty and its poetic diction proved difficult for some of the actors and a few of them could not be heard.
Let’s get to the story. It starts after the death of Tsar Ivan, better known as the “terrible” who died without an heir. That is unless his son Dmitry survived which he did not because Boris Godunov had him assassinated and became tsar.
A young man shows up in the Polish parliament claiming to be Dmitry, the rightful heir to the Russian throne. The Polish parliamentarians accept him and with the blessing of a Cardinal and the help of some Cossacks they all prepare to attack Russia and put Dmitry on the throne and convert it to Catholicism.
Moving quickly, Dmitry’s mother is found in a convent and says this Dmitry is not her son but she changes her mind and says yes he is. In Moscow there is consternation because Godunov knows that Dmitri was snuffed. The war goes on. Godunov’s son Fyodor is murdered, he commits suicide and Dmitry is found out for sure to be a pretender and he is dispatched out of this world. As we all know Romanov becomes tsar and his family stays on until 1917 when the Bolsheviks put end to the dynasty unless Anastasia survived which she did not.
Oswald tells an epic story that involves many entrenched national, religious and personal interests and it requires a larger stage, a bigger budget, and the resources of a huge organization to do it justice. The Marylebone Theatre has none of these.
The Polish parliamentarians where Dmitry opens are wearing modern, well-tailored suits and they are debating very loudly whether to recognize Dmitry as the tsar of Russia. We know that this is a story about Russia around 1605 and it requires many scene changes. But if we expect a parade of costumes from that era, we will be disappointed. All the action takes place in the paneled stage of the Marylebone with almost no props. This is 17th century Russia looking like a 21st century country. No problem with that and we get the message.
Back to Poland. Prince Mnishek (Mark Hadfield) and Cardinal Odowalsky (James Garnon) with most Polish parliamentarians are, as I said, enthusiastic supporters of Dmitry. Each may be accused of having his own agenda. The Prince plans to have Dmitry marry his daughter Marina and the Cardinal wants to convert Russia to Catholicism. Dmitry agrees to both. Marina (Aurora Dawson-Hunte) also agrees to marry Dmitry.
Korela (Piotr Baumann), a wild-looking Cossack warrior arrives and pledges his support for Dmitry. The war begins and we have to follow its course by hearing snippets of information from the front. In the meantime, Dmitry’s pretend mother Maria (Poppy Miller) is making her way across Russia and ends up in the Russian camp. The Cardinal, Korela and Dmitry are wounded. The Pretender Dmitry is visited by the soul of the real Dmitry, the one that Godunov assassinated many years ago.
Things work out and there is a coronation, a marriage and cries of joy from the populace. The fraud has worked, and Dmitry is the tsar. But it does not last, and the final and inevitable resolution comes. Dmitry is a fraudster and Romanov becomes tsar and the illusion of Dmitry, the heir of Ivan taking the throne disappears. Romanov tells us that the wisdom that is Russia prevails.
Oswald packs more than we can absorb in his play and having written most of it in free verse makes it even harder to digest. The colourful language of poetry proves difficult for some of the actors to deliver properly. There are far too many exhortations and war-like barks of orders. Speedy entrances and exits abound and there are far too many soliloquys that do not add much to the complex plot.
Director Tim Supple tries to maintain a brisk pace but still needs almost three hours to finish the play. A slower pace and a shorter script with more subtlety may have solved the problem
Dmitry is written after Friedrich Schiller’s unfinished play Demetrius, and I do not have a copy of it to comment as to the extent of its use. There is room for plays in verse but the people, the ambitions, the mendacity, and fraud involved in Dmitry did not resonate with me. You may draw your own conclusions and comparisons about Putin’s attack on Ukraine and Russia of 1605, but it strikes me as a bootstrap’s argument at best.
Dmitry by Peter Oswald with Alexander J. Gifford after Friedrich Schiller played at the Marylebone Theatre, 35 Park Rd, London NW1 6X, U.K. www.marylebonetheatre.com