The Rasputin Affair, by Kate Mulvany | Directed by John Sheedy

Ensemble Theatre (http://ensemble.com.au) | Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli, Sydney | Until 30 April

In the interests of authentic and transparent reviewing, I’m going to make an embarrassing admission: I wasn’t really sure who Rasputin was before seeing The Rasputin Affair.

There. I said it.

But really, doesn’t everyone have one or two aspects of history that they’re not quite as knowledgeable about as they would like to be, or should be? Those aspects that they know just enough about to fudge if the topic comes up at a dinner party — because the Russian Revolution comes up so often over canapes and crepes, doesn’t it?

Let me assure you, ignorance of Rasputin in no way limits your enjoyment of Kate Mulvany’s play. I easily picked up that Rasputin is an interloper to the court, one who has wheedled his way into its bosom (more specifically, the bosom of the Tsarina). Three aristocrats have hatched a plot to murder him and eventually do. Or do they?

The set is a little claustrophobic. It reduces the size of the already small Ensemble stage by creating a false wall. But I forgive director John Sheedy and designer Alicia Clements for tweaking my phobia because this false wall allows for much French-farcical comings and goings.

One of the things I have railed about in my reviews is the trend of having an actor on stage, in character, while audience members shuffle to their seats. It’s rarely innovative, interesting or in service of the play.

Not so in this case. I’ll let you discover why for yourself!

After an initial haunting monologue delivered from within the magical wall itself, the pace grows to a freneticism that is exciting and somewhat breathtaking. The Guest and I were gobsmacked at how finely tuned the dialogue, prop business and blocking were for an opening night. The actors appeared in the most surprising of places, doing the most outrageous things. They interact with each other, with the set and with props boisterously but precisely, barely misstepping in terms of either action or dialogue.

The grounding element within all of this craziness is Rasputin himself, played with an ironic gravitas by Sean O’Shea. O’Shea’s compelling presence in the small space anchors the craziness around him.

Mulvany proves a deft hand at writing funny and physical farce, and the skillful cast bring her absurd characters to glorious two-dimensional, cartoonish life.

Tom Budge’s Felix is the ring-leader of the murderous trio. A whining, self-obsessed prince with a number of pernicious peccadillos, Felix is the toff you love to hate. He is the polar opposite of O’Shea’s Rasputin, who is deep in voice and in power. John Gaden and Hamish Michael play Vlad and Dimitri, Felix’s partners in crime.

The talented Zindzi Okenyo rounds off the cast as Felix’s maid, Minya. In the spirit of typical farce, she may not be what she seems …

With The Rasputin Affair, The Ensemble is heading even further into previously uncharted territory, thanks to artistic director Mark Kilmurry. This is no safe David Williamson play — be prepared for lewdness and language if that kind of thing bothers you.

Me? I had a ball!

Images: Prudence Upton.