Review: DMITRY, Marylebone Theatre

Bold new historical epic makes for a demanding but rewarding evening

By: Oct. 05, 2022
Review: DMITRY, Marylebone Theatre Review: DMITRY, Marylebone Theatre Peter Oswald's new play (though written 20 or so years ago) is described as 'after Friedrich Schiller' (that'll pack 'em in in the stalls) and so it is - in the sense that he takes the German playwright's unfinished Demitrius and expands it into a historical epic, the kind of work one might expect to see at The National Theatre.

A better sell might be to describe its vibe as somewhere between I, Claudius and Game of Thrones with a bit of Shakespeare's history plays stirred into that heady brew.

We're in 17th century Russia where the ruthless Boris Godunov has seized power after the the reign of Ivan IV ended, well, in terrible circumstances, I suppose. To secure the throne, the Tsar's nine year-old son was killed by agents of Godunov... or was he? Dmitrys keep popping up with varying degrees of credibility but none can muster a force to prosecute their claim as the true heir of Ivan and Godunov continues his rule over a benighted people. Until a young man is given audience at the Polish court, presents a compelling vision for peace between two longstanding enemies, gets the backing of the Pope who fancies destroying the Russian Orthodox Church and also of the Cossacks who just fancy a bit of destroying, and marches on Kyiv with an eye for Moscow.

The play, stretching out to well over two hours including an interval, takes us into the complexities of political manoeuvering, brittle alliances forming and fading as interests shift, family relationships falter and religion and nationalism bounce off each other. There are times when things get a little too wordy, the exposition required to move the mosaic of a plot forwards too clunky and you wonder whether the story would work better as an HBO box-set than a play. But, if you stick with it and concentrate quite hard, it rewards you with a meaty narrative that has all too obvious parallels with today.

Tom Byrne holds the drama together as the claimed Dmitry, all noble and Henry V-ish in his youthful optimism and appeal to a country longing for release from chaos. His betrothed, Marina, (a standout performance from Aurora Dawson-Hunte) foreshadows the future in her character, when she makes her choices between love and duty and steps away from feudalism into a more modern world of pragmatic politics. Poppy Miller, as Maria, mother of Dmitry, conveys the dangers and cost of doing wrong in the service of right.

The support cast are super too, with some of the clearest diction I've heard on a London stage in years allowing one to overlook the always tricky (and jarring) decision to give some actors an accent and others not. The costumes (by Josie Thomas) are never less than a delight and a key component in defining a sense of place but not a sense of time, director, Tim Supple, going for a universal message within a specific conflict.

'Who lives, who dies, who tells your story' they sing a few miles and a couple of centuries away in Hamilton and that becomes a leitmotif in this play - Dmitry hears different stories of his life, some leading to power, some leading to disgrace, some leading to death. He makes his choices and pays the price.

In the world of alternative facts, of referendums that lead to one country annexing parts of another even as I write, of culture wars over who gets to define gender, this bold new play in its bold, new venue has plenty to say about 1606 - and about 2022.

Dmitry is at the Marylebone Theatre until 5 November (appropriately)

Photo Credit: Ellie Kurttz

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