Grigori Rasputin nearly found himself recast as an Australian. Playwright and actor Kate Mulvany studied Russian history in her high school in Geraldton, a remote iron ore port 400 kilometres north of Perth. It was there she “absolutely fell in love with” unpacking events in St Petersburg during World War I, when the doomed mystical faith healer cast a spell on Nicholas II, the last Tsar of the Russian Empire.

“I was obsessed with this story of how these noblemen wanted to do him in,” the West Australian-born writer recalls. Several years ago, Melbourne Theatre Company commissioned Mulvany to create a new Australian play, so she decided to reflect her own country’s class politics by setting the Rasputin story down under, submitting her first draft of The Rasputin Affair, fleshing out the terrifying events with black humour.

Kate Mulvany's The Rasputin Affair Sean O’Shea as Rasputin in Kate Mulvany’s  The Rasputin Affair at Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre. Photo © Prudence Upton

Spurred partly by hearing someone say that Australians couldn’t write a “big, grand, comic” piece set outside Australia, in the manner of US playwright Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play), Mulvany...