4 stars out of 5
Noel Coward Theatre, WC2
“What is a man without loyalty?” asks Vladimir Putin as his political career hits the skids in the Nineties. “Rich, usually,” replies Boris Berezovsky, the freedom-loving, rule-tweaking oligarch who will give the former KGB man his crucial leg-up towards big power before spending his final years in exile and regretting it.
These are the kinds of snappy exchanges that stud Patriots, the play in which Peter Morgan traces the rise and fall of a maths prodigy turned impassioned, arrogant billionaire. And in so doing, he depicts the origins of Putin’s Russia with the same sort of fact-filleting efficiency — and a fair chunk more liberty-taking aplomb — than he brings to his depiction of the royal family in The Crown.
First seen at the Almeida in north London last summer, Rupert Goold’s production proves as excitingly intelligent as it is refreshingly pacey over its two and a half hours.
It’s hard to imagine anyone better equipped than Tom Hollander to play Berezovsky, certainly in the way he is characterised here as a charming rogue whose love of freedom for Russia dovetails dangerously with his love of power and influence. Early on he sits at his desk at the centre of the T-shaped platform that dominates Miriam Buether’s set, literally overshadowing Will Keen’s slightly awkward, by-the-book Putin.
By the second half the roles are reversed. Yet although Hollander ensures we are drawn to the cut-the-crap Berezovsky, Morgan makes sure to show the moments where his caprice can turn into bullying; his impulsiveness to arrogance.
Keen, meanwhile, makes sure to make his Putin a man of principle: no man is a villain to himself, as the saying goes. Intimidatingly still, and more stern headmaster with the odd wry aside than your standard-issue ruthless dictator, his Putin emits a sincere disdain for his former mentor’s greed and corruption.
Both men see themselves as the true patriots here: we see the flaws and allure of both.
And though the supporting cast is excellent, in roles including Alexander Litvinenko (a blokey Josef Davies) and Roman Abramovich (outstanding ordinary-guy underplaying by Luke Thallon), the scenes between the play’s two central powerbrokers are stunning. Neither gives an inch, Keen quietly embodying the true power of a man who doesn’t need anyone else’s approval.
Perhaps Morgan relies too much on conversations between Berezovsky and his old maths professor (Ronald Guttman) to take some of the thematic strain as they talk of the push-pull between freedom and limitation.
Mostly, though, as he takes us from the rowdy post-Soviet freedoms of the early Nineties to Berezovsky’s lonely exile in Britain, Morgan extracts black comedy from a sharp-witted powerplay that does not need explicit nods to the war in Ukraine to make its pertinence felt.
It’s the sort of evening where the mood can turn on a rouble, leaving you with the ghost of a smile on your face as comedy turns to tragedy.
4stars out of 5
You can get in for as little as £15. At the premium end, the asking price is £125 – small change for a Russian oligarch, assuming their assets aren’t frozen. The wider cost to the world of under-estimating Putin, as did Boris Berezovsky, the billionaire businessman who helped instal him in the Kremlin and lived (until 2013; an apparent suicide) to regret it, is almost incalculable.
So this depiction of Putin’s preventable progress to the heart of power makes for an icily sobering evening. Prior to the war in Ukraine, its elegant and theatrically ebullient summation of how a nondescript former KGB intelligence officer went from pawn to puppet-master might have been received simply for what it is: classy info-tainment, directed by Rupert Goold with his customary glittering elan. Now, despite having the air of a belated warning, and hardly telling us much that’s “new”, it carries a grim, adrenal urgency.
There’s almost a fond nostalgia to the opening scenes, which take us back to the opportunist optimism of the later Yeltsin years, when there was money to burn, if you could dodge the bullets or survive a bomb attack (as Berezovsky miraculously did). Sitting at the heart of a large cruciform platform, his desk a financial command-centre amid an opulent night-club, Tom Hollander’s charismatic, phone-wielding wheeler-dealer is surrounded by cavorting flunkeys. Over several scenes, he brings in from the margins Will Keen’s picture of reticence, initially deputy mayor of St Petersburg and singing from the same patriotic folk-song sheet about liberalising the post-Soviet economy.
Where portrayals of Hitler can go to town with that rising tide of mania, Putin is a relatively anti-dramatic figure, and Morgan takes the added risk of barely fleshing out his past. Still, you can see why Keen got an Olivier for his performance as the West’s nemesis.
It’s partly the eerie resemblance and attention to recognisable detail: the sour impassivity and twitchy alertness. It’s equally the spectral otherness – standing before a mirror, adjusting his posture to seem more imposing, it’s as if this man has no hinterland beyond that reflection.
As he grows in stature and control, winning over Luke Thallon’s Roman Abramovich, dispatching Alexander Litvinenko (Josef Davies), so Hollander’s braggart king-maker shrinks and becomes side-lined, a barely attended voice in exile. How this play ends is one thing, how it will all play out in the end quite another.
4 stars out of 5
This hectic, tragicomic tale has already gained new weight and prescience as it transfers into the West End from the Almeida
It’s only 11 months since Peter Morgan’s hectic, tragicomic battle of political wills between Vladimir Putin and Boris Berezovsky opened at the Almeida, but already the play has gained new weight and prescience. Tom Hollander again gives a barnstorming, almost demonic performance as the oligarch who wanted to “save” Russia through capitalism – at considerable personal profit to himself.
Again, he’s matched by Will Keen’s (Olivier Award-winning) twitchy but slowly hardening Putin, the monster who destroys his creator. I don’t think a line has changed in Rupert Goold’s production, but Patriots feels like a deeper and more densely thoughtful work now.
As with The Crown, The Queen and his trilogy of dramas about Tony Blair, Morgan explores global events and grand themes through morally ambivalent public personalities. Berezovsky is a maths prodigy, giving up his pure academic pursuits in favour of getting rich and getting laid in the asset-selloff boom of Boris Yeltsin’s regime. Yet he genuinely sees himself as a patriot, liberating his atrophied homeland.
But the “little” KGB man he promotes to the Kremlin, with the half-willing help of Luke Thallon’s diffidently boyish Roman Abramovich, sees himself as a patriot, too. Berezovsky is obsessed with the science of decision making and the concept of the infinite. He fails at the former, the latter sours on him and he ends up yearning for even a small piece of home.
In a sense, this is a debate about the soul of a country that embraces 11 time zones, 50 nationalities and 150 million people. Miriam Buether’s crimson, cruciform set does duty as a mountaintop, a Kremlin megadesk, and a casino table where everything’s up for grabs.
Goold’s propulsive production allocates random British regional accents to minor characters, partly to reflect Russia’s diversity of languages and dialects, but also perhaps to remind us there’s no monopoly on corruption and bad decisions. Tony Blair’s government granted Berezovsky asylum, but a British judge dismissed his claim that his assets had been wrongly acquired by Abramovich – partly because he was obnoxious and lied in court, partly because he had insisted in the first place that his “partnership” with Abramovich remained off the books.
Above all, the stage here is a combat arena where actors in this necessarily macho play can spar. Hollander’s Berezovsky is part showman, part sprite, in love with his own audacity, merely galvanised when he survives a car bomb in the early minutes. His razored-in bald patch is less brutal this time.
Keen is all cold-eyed, suppressed violence: his Putin’s penchant for staged “false flag” operations seems newly resonant. The imagined conversations between the two characters, and their bullying of Abramovich, are a joy to watch. The female parts are token mothers, secretaries, wives and girlfriends, but there’s a lovely role for Ronald Guttman as the abstracted, purist maths professor in whom Berezovsky confides from childhood.
The script is consistently witty and smart but inevitably, with so much information and history to pack in, some of the dialogue is on the nose. Alexander Litvinenko (Josef Davies), another patriot, repeatedly explains his backstory as the only honest agent in Russia’s FSB security force. Later, working in security for Berezovsky in Britain, he announces he’s meeting someone “for tea” that the audience already knows will be laced with polonium. But this is a minor quibble in a sharp, taut, political drama that enriches the West End.