What to do with a royal family that’s been deposed? Do you send them quietly into exile? Kill them quickly? Or let them stay lingering under house arrest facing an uncertain future?
The fate of the Romanovs, locked in the fortified house at Ekaterinburg is the theme of Heidi Thomas’ thoughtful new play. What makes it especially interesting is that the theme of families acting like prisoners, miles from anywhere, bored out of their skulls, and suffering from heat/cold is a constant theme in Chekhov. But Thomas has subverted that idea - here are some real prisoners, in a real prison – their complaints have much more of an edge.
Adrian Rawlins’ cheerful Nicholas, tries to cheer his family up. Clare Holman’s Alexandra is more rigid, unable to cope with her loss of status, still offering her hand to guards to be kissed and refusing to cut her husband’s hair. Yet, she softens after a few months’ incarceration – prepared to muck in with the rest. I’m not convinced about this; she’d been in captivity for a year before the play starts, why the sudden change in attitude? Thomas uses this change as a dramatic device to highlight how the imprisonment and contact with her guards has humanised her - it strikes me as a false note, however.
Allied to the royals’ acceptance of their fate is a growing sympathy for them from the captors. At the start of the play, the family face a host of petty humiliations - “we keep you alive so we can hate you” says the commandant - but gradually, there’s a thawing of relations.
The four daughters are not finely drawn, so it’s often hard to tell them apart. Thomas offers us sketches of them rather than an examination of their personalities, with the exception of late stand-in Annabel Scholey’s taciturn Olga, traumatised by being raped by her former captors, and Lydia Wilson’s flighty Maria. There are also strong performances from Dermot Kerrigan as a hardline apparatchik and Gunnar Cauthery as a guard torn between his beliefs and sympathy for the family. Director Howard Davies paces the play beautifully, maintaining the tension - even though we know the family’s awful fate.
Thomas has concentrated on the human relationships, there’s little discussion of the underlying politics, so we don’t see why this devoted family has been treated this way - one doesn’t need to be a fanatical Marxist to appreciate that the October rising was not just an idle whim but the result of a population reacting to years of harsh living and broken promises. It’s a very human story about a political event - it’s just a shame to keep the politics out; what would Brecht have done with such a story? For all that, it’s a moving play with some strong performances and an intelligent examination of the nature of captivity.