Review: Patriots, Almeida Theatre ★★★★☆

by Jim Keaveney

Peter Morgan, famous for his political and social studies of the West on stage, film, and television with The Crown, The Audience, Frost/Nixon, The Queen, and his Tony Blair trilogy, turns his sights on Russia in what proves to be a timely exploration of the rise of Vladimir Putin (Will Keen) framed through the prism of Russian oligarch and Boris Berezovsky (Tom Hollander).

Will Keen and Tom Hollander. Photo: Marc Brenner

As Russian tanks roll through Ukraine and the world sanctions the country's oligarchs, Morgan casts back to 1991 as Berezovsky, a mathematical genius and already one of the richest and most influential businessmen in post-Soviet Russia, seeks to make a deal with the stubborn Deputy Mayor of St Petersburg, Vladimir Putin. The Principled Putin refuses to accept a bribe but, following a disappointing election result in the city, he returns to Berezovsky with a request that the businessman use his influence over President Yeltsin to secure him a political position. The young ex-KGB officer who has never excelled at anything has political ambitions, you see, as he preaches for the need for liberalism and the necessity of foreign influence if Russia is to progress. Meanwhile, a young businessman, Roman Abramovich (Luke Thallon), also seeks Berezovsky’s presidential influence too, as he plans the expansion of his oil business westward. It requires the President’s sign off and Berezovsky can deliver - for a significant cut of the profits.

Luke Thallon and Will Keen. Photo: Marc Brenner

Miriam Buether’s adaptable seedy-barroom set with red-strip lighting and high stools becomes a newsroom, a hospital, a courtroom, and the Kremlin as the action plays out. It can be a hard play to pin down at times, particularly in the first half - it is irreverent and darkly funny with lines that skewer its targets, but it is incredibly serious too, with director Rupert Goold trying to strike the balance in Morgan’s text. What Goold does manage to do expertly is to sustain the play’s pace over a timeframe that covers almost sixty years. 

The second half feels more focused and almost Shakespearean in the way it examines its historical players. In fact, we might call this a tragedy with Berezovsky suffering through hubris, hamartia, anagnorisis, peripeteia, and catharsis on his journey from the height of his powers to his exile in Berkshire. There is still the occasional strange choice; we see Marina Litvinenko (Yolanda Kettle) calling Berezovsky for medical advice when her husband first falls ill but not Alexander Litvinenko’s (an underused Jamael Westman) incredible show of defiance, propped up in his hospital bed. 

Jamael Westman and Tom Hollander. Photo: Marc Brenner

The three main actors, Hollander, Keen, and Thallon, deliver disconcertingly accurate depictions of their characters without veering into caricature - none moreso than Keen as he transforms Putin from the shy and squirming nobody we meet in 1991 to the cold, ruthless, and reassured President he becomes almost a decade later. It is an astonishing and truly chilling performance. Thallon’s unassuming Abramovich is a man who knows his place and understands he must make a deal with the devil to get where he wants to be. Two deals, in fact. He flinches the moment after seals his deal with Berezovsky with a handshake but later accepts Putin’s arm slapping embrace with a defeated air.

But Hollander will always be the draw here and it is the anticipation of his performance, alongside Morgan's reputation, that sees the run already sold out (keep an eye out for returns). He is incredibly watchable as Berezovsky, reveling in the reputation of the unpredictable businessman, with his eyes popping and darting around the room as he explodes in fits of rage. But it is Hollander's portrayal of Berezovsky’s downfall that is most impressive - he slowly morphs into the broken and defeated exile, longing for his homeland and standing almost alone against the most dangerous man in the world - the man he created.

Patriots is at the Almeida Theatre until 20 August

Jim Keaveney is the lead critic at The Understudy. He tweets occasionally from @understudyjim

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