Peter Morgan, of Frost/Nixon and The Crown fame, is an expert at dramatising modern history. This hit transfer from the Almeida Theatre takes the story of Boris Berezovsky, looking at oligarchs and recent transformations in Russia, to make a smart, entertaining show.
The play has ambition and covers a lot of ground. It isn’t just Berezovsky’s life and death but a whole country we are asked to consider. And you might like to think Patriots is about political systems; even why the world is how it is right now.
How successful this balance of big and small is can be debated. You learn a lot about Berezovksy, some about Russia, but not so much about oligarchy and democracy. No matter how deftly produced – and it is well done – Patriots gets sketchy.
Taking the biography first, Morgan rattles through Berezovsky’s life and gives us a portrait of a clever and charismatic man who is hard to like but easy to watch. The lead performance from Tom Hollander is stunning, highlighting the demons that drive the character and making the most of some devilishly good lines.
If Berezovsky seems heroic at times – his talk of patriotism might appeal and grows in conviction – he doesn’t have much competition. Those around him, politicians and business leaders, are, of course, quite the crew. But none is gifted anything like the same level of detail. Vladimir Putin and Boris Yeltsin are victims of too many jokes, fun to be sure, but slim. Alexander Litvinenko is too much the saint. Roman Abramovich becomes an intriguing figure – much better.
Any conflict between having the characters represent ideas and being three dimensional may struggle on the page but not the stage because of the performances. Director Rupert Goold’s work with a crack cast is fantastic. Will Keen’s Putin and Josef Davies’ Litvinenko have some chunky speeches they make trip off the tongue. The much smaller role for Paul Kynman as Yeltsin is also fantastic, while Luke Thallon gives Abromovitch tremendous focus and charisma. Combined with Goold’s fast paced direction – remarkably clear at every moment – you couldn’t possibly be bored.
There’s a lot of conviction in Patriots. The play is at its best with questions about how sincere its characters are. The disconnect between lofty talk and people’s actions might be explored more. For instance, the relation between theory and practice exemplified by Berezovsky’s academic background is poorly used. It’s easy to imagine Morgan rubbing his hands about the idea that Berezovsky undertook mathematical research in decision making, but it isn’t explained enough and leads to some unhappy interactions with an old professor that stand out as poor.
The thrill of bringing versions of the rich and famous to the stage is exploited throughout, alongside Morgan’s witty script, which makes the most of key moments and hindsight. Berezovsky’s sorry end comes quickly. There are more interesting stories to be told around the time of his demise and a strong sense that Morgan knows it. It is Goold who brings the show to a successful conclusion and ensures the pace doesn’t flag.
Until 19 August 2023
Photo by Marc Brenner