The plot revolves around the demise of the Russian royal family in the final days of empire. We learn about the Khodynka Tragedy, young Alexei’s hemophilia, and the growing hostility of the people towards the monarchy. But instead of a historical analysis of events leading to the February Revolution, we witness the disintegration of a family desperately attempting to find their place at the threshold of a new era.
The ancien regime is represented by Nicholas II and his daughter Maria, reluctant to acknowledge the impending revolution. Tsarevich Alexei (Dawid Żłobiński, perfectly hysterical in his admiration for Lenin) finds their traditions archaic. He and the three Duchesses, Olga, Tatiana, and Anastasia, influenced by Communist ideas, see fraternising with the working class as the only means to survive. Neither strategy turns out to be successful. The family remains divided between the traditionalists who, convinced of their sainthood, voluntarily become martyrs, and the progressives who fail to understand the masses or to convince them of their good intentions.
The play also investigates the role of art. Nicholas II asks spectators to vote on whether they would like to see a complete or a censored version of a performance. But the freedom they are offered is illusory. Over the course of the performance they are made to reveal political leanings and disclose secrets. The hope for true artistic freedom is revived with the appearance of the titular Rasputin. He announces that extravagance is the liberation of art. The staging becomes a harsh comment on the condition of art in contemporary Poland, where extravagance can exist but only as long as it is accepted by the ruling elites.
All the sociological and philosophical considerations leave little place for dialogue. The world envisaged by Jolanta Janiczak and Wiktor Rubin seems to be inhumanely cold. Nevertheless, the cast of Żeromski Theatre is highly convincing in incarnating it. Wojciech Niemczyk’s performance is flawless; his Nicolas II is as detached from reality as an aristocrat can be. When he is not preoccupied with cultivating old traditions or taking pictures of his family, the Tsar loses himself in virtual reality. His indifference to the rising political unrest escalates until, by the end of the performance, he throws the Romanovs on the mercy of their executioners.
Anna Antoniewicz and Dagna Dywicka’s acting is also distinctive. They portray Tatiana and Anastasia as youthful, yet melancholic. Particularly touching is the scene in which the two girls look for their remains in rubbish bags filled with soil and dirt, only to find how badly their bodies were damaged during their execution.
Mirek Kaczmarek’s stage design also charms. At first it seems almost too minimalistic for the Romanov family. In the end, though, the subtle play of light reflected from the golden floor and from the chandelier with its hammer-and-sickle shaped prisms make a compelling but not overwhelming setting. The royal furniture also makes meaningful if rare appearances. Always carried by members of the working class, it reminds us that the public is the ultimate source of the monarchs’ power.
If you want to learn about one of the most mysterious Russians that ever lived, the play will probably disappoint you. Nor will it provide an accurate historical recreation of the last years of the Romanov’s reign. However, it is definitely worthwhile to spend your evening to take a closer look at what the show’s creators have to say about power, art, and the world around us. After all, contemporary Europe, torn between liberalism and nationalism, does not differ that much from the Russian Empire at the beginning of the 20th century.