AMMAR HAJ AHMAD opens in DMITRY at the Marylebone Theatre


Broadway World

4 stars out of 5

Review: DMITRY, Marylebone Theatre

Bold new historical epic makes for a demanding but rewarding evening

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.



The Guardian

3 out of 5 stars

Dmitry review – historical Russian thriller resonates

Marylebone theatre, London
Peter Oswald’s take on Friedrich Schiller’s unfinished tragedy shows Russia’s recurrent turn towards tyranny

‘The tussle over the soul of Russia feels pertinent’ … Dmitry at the Marylebone theatre. Photograph: Ellie Kurttz

When Friedrich Schiller died aged 45 in 1805, he left not only masterpieces like Mary Stuart, but plans for a historical tragedy about Dmitry, the pretender to the Russian throne who overthrew Boris Godunov in 1605. Peter Oswald turns this material into a juicy political thriller to open the new Marylebone theatre, based at Rudolf Steiner House (his play runs alongside lectures on theosophy and biodynamic gardening). In it, Dmitry embraces his destiny – he is supposedly the son of the former tsar, secretly rescued from Godunov’s assassins. Now he returns to Russia, supported by the Poles, the pope and a Cossack army, each with their own motives for his victory.

Schiller’s history plays were strongly influenced by Shakespeare, while Oswald was writer in residence at Mark Rylance’s Globe. There is certainly something Shakespearean in the panoramic shuttle between factions, and the way scenes of public assertion are slashed by moments of intense private doubt, shared with the audience alone.

As he closes on success, Dmitry (a callow Tom Byrne) questions his true identity, his traumatic infancy lost: “I have been flung into the wind without any memory.” Urging him on are figures of fearsome conviction: James Garnon’s bullish papal envoy, getting handy with a lectern, and Mark Hadfield’s Polish prince, wincing at the budget for invasion. Poppy Miller’s deposed tsarina proclaims Dmitry as her son but is gnawed by grief and guilt.

Inside the Kremlin, Daniel York Loh’s Boris brings echoes of Stalin and Putin, the thuggish spymaster turned tyrant, ranting at the “so-called dead”. When events turn against him, he recognises an “end point beyond the end point”.

There’s gamey acting elsewhere in Tim Supple’s earnest, driving production: a cast of blokes bellow through their beards on Robert Innes Hopkins’ handsome wooden set. Oswald has been carving this material for a decade, but the tussle over the soul of Russia and the nation’s recurrent turn towards tyranny inevitably feels pertinent. Big lies go head to head, and everyone enlists God for their cause: “Heaven has spoken – what will Earth reply?” Who controls the narrative, the play asks; whose story of the past will determine the future?


The Stage

3 out of 5 stars

Weighty, if sometimes overwrought, take on Friedrich Schiller opens the new London venue

This is the new Marylebone Theatre’s inaugural show – and it’s no mainstream crowd-pleaser. Peter Oswald’s version of Friedrich Schiller’s unfinished play Demetrius is inspired by one of the real-life claimants to Russia’s czardom in the 17th century. Choosing it as an opener is a bold statement of intent.

In a production by Tim Supple, it proves a sometimes self-consciously weighty, serious piece of theatre, steeped in Schiller’s abiding interest in individuals caught up in the relentless march of history and tradition. Believed to have been murdered as a child, Dmitry (Tom Byrne) arises, Christ-like, as the true heir to Ivan the Terrible. Meanwhile, vested interests in Poland and the Catholic Church seek to topple Boris Godunov as czar at a time of widespread social unrest and disaffection in Russia. Is there more to Dmitry’s reappearance as would-be saviour? Is he who he claims?

Supple imbues this production with a quasi-operatic level of emotion. From the furrowed-brow intensity of the performances to the sudden bursts of electric guitar in Max Pappenheim’s tense, ever-present sound design (aided by the auditorium’s great acoustics), this is a world of very little light and a lot of foreboding. It suits a drama full of people weighed down by their past deeds and current actions, even if it makes the first act a bit of a slog at times.

The play really kicks into gear in the second half, after a plot twist about Dmitry’s identity raises a host of intriguing questions about the sacrifices people are willing to make to achieve their goals, and how much they are willing to manipulate the truth. Oswald’s script lays bare – at times rather too baldly – the cynical appeal to faith, symbolism and legacy that underpins the manoeuvring of political and spiritual institutions.

It also helps that, as the action reaches its bloody climax, everyone has something to hide. The double-crossing and backroom plotting is juicily soap-operatic. Byrne’s Dmitry is persuasively conflicted and out of his depth as events overtake him; James Garnon switches from self-proclaimed simple man of faith to Machiavellian zealot with oily ease as Papal envoy Cardinal Odaolwalsky; and as Maria, the mother of Dmitry and convent-banished widow of Ivan, Poppy Miller fully rides her character’s emotional rollercoaster of distress, hope and despair.

As the play ends, Oswald makes some pointed references to the centuries-long consequences of Russia’s anger over its vulnerability to the influence of foreign states (that is, the legacy of East versus West). But it feels like a bit of a last-minute handwave at present-day conflicts, notably the war in Ukraine. The production is better taken on its own, knotty terms, as a tale of toxic nationalism.


Time Out

3 out of 5 stars

The brand-new Marylebone Theatre opens its doors with this gripping Schiller curio

The Marylebone Theatre is an unexpected new addition to London’s theatre scene. A 220-seat venue located in Rudolf Steiner Hall, it’s been knocking around for years (Alec Guinness put on a play here in 1939!) but has now suddenly become a producing venue.

And ‘Dmitry’ is an unexpected first play. An unfinished Friedrich Schiller drama completed by playwright Peter Oswald, it’s the sort of show you might expect to see at the National Theatre on a megabudget or at the Almeida with a starrier cast or creatives. As it is, ‘Dmitry’ has a cast of 17 very respectable actors, directed by former Young Vic boss Tim Supple. On payroll alone it’s clearly not cheap – it seems almost inconceivable it could break even on ticket sales, and is presumably being subsidised by somebody or other – but neither does it have the funds behind it to push into being the sort of sweeping spectacle Schiller’s epic storyline demands.

Those caveats accepted, ‘Dmitry’ is engrossing stuff. The name refers to Dmitry Ivanovich, the youngest son of Ivan the Terrible, who’d been thought assassinated as a child of the orders of Ivan’s successor, Boris Godunov. But as the play begins, the character played by Tom Byrne genuinely believes himself to be Dmitry, the rightful heir to the Russian throne. He has come before the Polish Parliament and James Garnon’s scheming Cardinal Odowalsky to raise an army to march on Moscow. The scheming Poles have spied opportunity, for Poland and for the Catholic Church. They’re joined by ten thousand ferocious Cossack horsemen led by Jonathan Oliver’s scary Castellan. And when the real Dmitry’s mother Maria is retrieved from a convent to give her blessing to the young pretender, his path to czardom seems assured. But is he who he thinks he is?

A quick glance at Wikipedia will sort that out for you. And you may possibly be familiar with Pushin’s ‘Boris Godunov’, which tells the same events from the Russian side. But as the name suggests. Schiller plus Peter Oswald tell the story from the perspective of Dmitry and his enablers, and at best it makes for a gripping, multilayered, psychologically complex anatomy of shifting human powerplay. One of the most remarkable episodes in Russia’s not-exactly-dull history, it has the scope of a ‘Julius Caesar’ or ‘Richard III’, and Supple tells it with lean, unflashy momentum.

But despite some fine actors in the cast, the script lacks memorable characters. In particular, Dmitry himself feels like there could be a lot more to him: nothing wrong with Byrne’s performance, but he’s written as nice young man somewhat overwhelmed by his situation… and that doesn’t really change. The plot is gripping, but the characters never live up to the events they’re living through.

It’s an odd thing to launch your theatre with what is essentially a curio. But this is probably the only chance you’ll ever get to see a production of ‘Dmitry’, and at the very least it’s a cracking story, entertainingly told.

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