My second theatre trip of half term week, on a train strike day, necessitating taking the Oxford Tube coach – getting the last seat to London, and having to wait for the third bus on the return leg – It was after 1am when I got home! However, it was totally worth it to see this fascinating and brilliant drama by Peter Morgan, who created ‘The Crown‘ for Netflix, and ‘The Queen‘ with Mirren as QEII on stage and film.
Patriots first played at the Almeida last year to rave reviews, revived for the West End this summer, directed by Rupert Goold. Its subject is the Russian oligarch, Boris Berezovsky, played with great verbal and characteristic verve by Tom Hollander, (an accurate portrayal according to the Guardian review from last year by someone who knew him).
Berezovsky was the first of the Russian billionaires, who became a favourite of Yeltsin, but when it was clear that Yeltsin would be ousted, Berezovsky campaigned for the former KGB officer and Deputy Mayor of St Petersburg, whom he had got into the FSB, to become Prime Minister. At this stage Berezovsky saw Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin as a yes man. Little did he know…
Putin is played by Will Keen, whom you might recognise as the chief baddie from His Dark Materials. His transformation once he becomes President is chilling. From the man begging Berezovsky to put in a word with Yeltsin for him, to the world’s top villain with a hint of a ‘cowboy walk’, I wanted to boo, but it wasn’t that kind of audience! Keen as President Putin has a real presence.
Berezovsky soon realises his mistake and has to flee to London, taking Sasha Litvinenko, ‘an honest cop’ with him as his security officer – and we all know what happened there. Sadly, the West didn’t take Boris’s warnings about Putin seriously enough.
If the politicians cannot save Russia, then we businessmen must. We have not just the responsibility but the duty to become Russian heroes.
Paralleling the story of Berezovsky and Putin is that of Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich, who had approached Berezovsky for mentorship, which Berezovsky gave in return for demands for whatever he wanted – nothing on paper. The two men will fall out spectacularly in the English courts, when Berezovsky tries and fails to get back companies he’d been forced to sell to Abramovich when he fled Russia. But Abramovich has by then sided with Putin – and we know where that has led too. Abramovich is played with absolute coolness by a young actor new to me, Luke Thallon.
The conflicting arguments between the oligarch and dictator about what it is to be a Russian patriot are at the core of the play which, although a serious drama has some moments of great humour, such as when a drunken Yeltsin appears grinning. Berezovsky was a maths prodigy and visits to his maths professor throughout, some in flashback, ground him and keep his idealistic streak going alongside his corrupt business dealings! There are moving moments too – notably the ending which I won’t spoil, but also the fate of Litvinenko who will reappear as a white-clad ghost/angel. The entire supporting cast are great, most playing multiple roles in the red-lit single set which itself plays many roles.
Seeing this marvelous play has led me to find out more about Berezovsky – the man George Soros called ‘The Great Gatsby of Moscow’, and has reminded me I have Luke Harding’s book about the poisoning of Litvinenko, and Red Notice by Putin critic Bill Browder on my shelves somewhere. On at the Noel Coward Theatre in St Martin’s Lane until mid-August – highly recommended indeed.