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Ivan the Terrible: Absolute Power on BBC Radio 4

Tales of Russian leaders in Radio 4’s series Tsar grip listeners in the wake of the centenary of the Russian Revolution. The first episode, ‘Ivan the Terrible: Absolute Power’, written by Mike Walker, tells the violent tale of Ivan the Terrible and his unusual rise to absolute power. Through a cleverly connected series of events in Ivan’s life, the suspicion and betrayal of the Tsar’s Russia comes to light.

Whilst the tale covers a Russia in mayhem, yearning for a ruler who drove himself into self-ordained exile, the focus remains on the Tsar himself and his development into madness and cruelty. Through its 58 minutes, the story jumps from an old bitter Ivan to a young optimistic prince; from his a life as a devoted monk, to a perhaps even more devoted ruler; from trusting friends to periods punctuated by execution and exile. Anastasia, the Tsar’s deceased wife, remains at the heart of it all, providing a red threat in the play that knits all the pieces together and leads the way to its ultimate and final family drama.

Music, anecdotes and particularly comedy provide a balance for the growing violence and bring the narrative to life. Accordingly, the play invites the listener into the story of a man, rather than the distant, often legendary character that historical commentaries so often create. Even though this helps the listener associate and understand a man who would later be seen as ‘mad’, the tone remains one of respect and awe, as the play appreciates the complicated love and hate relationship between Russia and her first Tsar.

The play is definitely an interesting listen. It is not necessary to have any historical background for an understanding of it. Nevertheless the informed listener will be able to fully appreciate the portrayal of the Tsar as a complex figure and Threllfall’s well-played outbursts of anger. A quick visit to Wikipedia might therefore be a good idea, although I have to warn you about the historical spoilers that haunt that website!

Image: Alexander Litovchenko

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