Poles Apart: Dmitry at Marylebone Theatre 

Image Ellie Kurtz


From: 29 Sep 2022

To: 5 Nov 2022

Marylebone Theatre 
Rudolf Steiner House
35 Park Road

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Twenty years of troubles and rumour followed the murder of Dmitry, heir to the Russian Tsar Ivan IV (the Terrible) in 1591. Until the first Romanov took control in 1613, as many as 36 ‘False Dmitrys’ proclaimed themselves to be the rightful heir. Though nearly three hours long, this Dmitry focuses on just one of them who, in 1603, momentarily seized control with the backing of an unlikely alliance of Catholic Poles and Orthodox Russians.

The original Demetrius is from ‘neither heaven, nor Poland’. Its author, German playwright Friedrich von Schiller died in 1804, leaving his play unfinished. Playwright Peter Oswald picks up where ‘Fritz’ left off, staging his production in London’s newest theatre (Marylebone Theatre fittingly recalls a modern Parliament, much like Edinburgh’s St. Cecilia’s Hall, if not Holyrood itself.)

Indeed, constant reinvention runs throughout Dmitry – and is partly why a story from seventeenth-century Russia was deemed relevant in eighteenth-century Germany, and again, today. ‘It’s not a history play, but a play about how we use history,’ says director Tim Supple.

Image Ellie Kurtz

In Dmitry, we see the struggle to define reality in a world post-truth, where politicians posture with religious conviction, and Russia shares a turbulent relationship with neighbouring Poland – and through Poland, the West, and the Roman Catholic Church. Dmitry is either a martyr, or a puppet of Western ambition, as the history is recounted in Russia today.

If this sounds familiar, it looks even more so. From his traditionally dressed peers, Tom Byrne (Dmitry) emerges clad in camouflage, the spit of Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Daniel York Loh (Godunov) mimics Putin in suit and stature, remarking how the Pope, and the West, poke Russia through Poland. 

Image Ellie Kurtz

These contemporary choices make Dmitry’s anachronisms somewhat jarring. The Russian Cossacks are the only characters – or caricatures – to talk in accents, which are thick to the point of being unintelligible. ‘Fuck my eyes, where’s my vodka?’ can nevertheless be clearly heard, from a dying Cossack scrambling amidst the rubble.

It is only when Dmitry ‘regains’ the crown that he learns he is not Dmitry at all, but another pretender, and the play meanders into more philosophical territory. The Crown, no doubt, weighs heavy on the head of Tom Byrne’s Dmitry. His eyes dart constantly with insecurity and doubt. He is forced to convince himself that he is two people, or perhaps the embodiment of Dmitry – the alternative, is to be nobody at all.

Jackie Shemesh’s dramatic lighting design lifts and shadows these characters in their search for any sort of enlightenment. Other parts are overproduced. Max Pappenheim’s constant soundtrack of classical and contemporary music leaves no space for silence, but is used best when echoing Mark Hadfield’s rousing speech ahead of the first siege. There’s some strange physical theatre, and it could be tighter, but the pacing is generally strong, the interval in a natural division. 

Namesake aside, Dmitry is truly a play about powerful women. Dmitry’s mother, Tsarina Maria, is a Russian Lady Macbeth. Given the opportunity to return to power from her remote convent, she must navigate her complex, both connected and conflicting, religious and political convictions. But Poppy Miller’s serious delivery garners more titters than tension, with deadpan lines like ‘Why is she speaking in Latin?’ At one point, she’s dumbstruck to the point of being confused for a tree.

But alongside Byrne, Aurora Dawson-Hunter shines as Marina. In fact, she glows, with the religious conviction that Russia and Poland stand together, ‘as mother and father’. It is this portrayal, of the people who sought to redefine the relationship between both countries to one of partnership, not patriarchal domination, that is unique to this production.

With thanks to Jelena Sofronijevic (@jelsofron) for this review. Jelena is an audio producer and freelance journalist, who makes content at the intersections of intercultural political history and the arts. They are the producer of EMPIRE LINES, a podcast which uncovers the unexpected flows of Empires through artworks.

To accompany the play, a musical event, Schiller in Song, is planned for 10th November at 7.30pm, featuring Gwilym Bowen (tenor) with Paul McKenzie (piano).

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