sat 15/06/2024

Patriots, Almeida Theatre review - a brilliant drama from Peter Morgan about rampant Russian power games | reviews, news & interviews

Patriots, Almeida Theatre review - a brilliant drama from Peter Morgan about rampant Russian power games

Patriots, Almeida Theatre review - a brilliant drama from Peter Morgan about rampant Russian power games

Tom Hollander as powerbroker Boris Berezovsky switches between brazen charm and hubristic rage

What we do in the shadows: Will Keen as Vladimir Putin, left, and Tom Hollander as Boris BerezovskyAll images Marc Brenner

To watch a Peter Morgan drama is to have a fly-on-the-wall’s perspective of modern history. Over the last two decades he has chronicled everything from David Frost’s bid to interview Richard Nixon to the disintegration in the relationship between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair.

In his new play Patriots at the Almeida he takes one of the most potent political narratives of our time – the rise of Vladimir Putin – and refracts it through the life story of the brilliant, flamboyant, bullying oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Through the prism of Berezovsky’s tragedy we see how Putin goes from repressed bureaucrat to a leader who clamps down ruthlessly on any individual – or country – he perceives to have betrayed him.

The challenge of telling a story with such a strong contemporary resonance is to do it in a way that evades audience preconceptions. While Putin’s villain status is a given, what Morgan cleverly demonstrates from the start is how impossible it is for a Westerner truly to understand Russia and, by implication, what it takes to control it. Part of this is scale – where in the UK we live within one time zone, Russia spans an astonishing 11; it has 120 ethnic groups and more than three quarters of its landmass is in Asia. Part of this is to do with the culture, whether it’s – as Berezovsky tells us – the songs of Vladimir Vysotsky championing the ordinary man’s endurance against the indignities of life, laughter in the banya, or the beauty of snow on the rooftops.

Rupert Goold’s assured production shifts deftly between Berezovksy’s childhood (in which he’s revealed as a maths genius), scenes of McMafia-style excess in which he lords it as a billionaire, and encounters with both Putin and his erstwhile ally Roman Abramovich that show his power gradually being eroded. In a performance that's as high-octane as it's darkly comic, Tom Hollander establishes Berezovsky as a man who is equally cynical and persuasive, switching between brazen charm and hubristic temper tantrums as he accrues wealth through cars, the media industry and oil successively.

While we see how success makes him a monster, we see too the strange naïvety to his rampant power games. “It’s a foolish man who refuses to see his President,” Putin castigates him at one point. “Not when he’s created that president,” retorts Berezovsky. Yet as the evening progresses and Putin’s vicelike grip tightens, those who have shunned Berezovsky start to realise he is the lesser of two evils. Once he’s “betrayed” Putin by broadcasting the true facts about the Kursk submarine disaster, it’s not just Berezovksy but those around him who see how the country is stumbling back to totalitarianism.

Hollander’s performance as Berezovsky is offset by a performance of pure brilliance by Will Keen as Vladimir Putin. It would be all too easy to caricature him, but Keen’s understanding of the man informs his every muscle movement, whether in the rigidity of his torso, the saccadic shifts of the muscles round the eyes, or the twitching of his fingers. We perceive straight away the radioactive rage of an individual who has internalised every perceived humiliation both of himself and his country and has devised a strategy to ensure he will never be humiliated again. One particularly interesting moment is the reference to Putin’s desire to join NATO in 2000, with the implication that the West’s reluctance to engage with the concept of this contributed in no small part to the situation we are witnessing today.  

Is this true, or is this yet another of the foreign policy mind games at which Putin has proved himself so adept? It’s not in the play’s remit to explore this; what it does do instead is show how the seeds of totalitarianism were planted right at the start. In the list of individuals who Putin summons to Stalin’s dacha to inform them how politics has changed, we recognise the name of the subsequently assassinated Boris Nemtsov and the imprisoned, then exiled Mikhail Khodorkovsky. We also witness the shock as the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko – Berezovsky’s associate – by polonium reveals that Russia feels confident enough to treat even London as a city where it can act with murderous impunity.

Miriam Buether’s simple versatile design deploys a thrust stage that doubles up as a bar and a political “catwalk” on which the different players chance their luck. An arched doorway at the back opens to reveal a mirror that amplifies the narcissism of power-play in an oil-rich post-communist world. Among the rest of the cast Luke Thallon stands out as a deceptively wet-behind-the-ears Roman Abramovich, while Jamael Westman is a compelling Litvinenko (pictured above, left with Tom Hollander). Once more Morgan has created a drama that is as politically intelligent as it is entertaining, even as it comes with the chilling subtext that we have no idea how it will end for any of us.


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