‘Patriots’ at the Almeida Theatre
For a powerful man to claim ‘I have the country’s best interests at heart’ is easy; assessing whether he is right is rather harder. When speaker, state and situation relate to the newly-post-Soviet Russia of the 1990s, answers would appear especially elusive yet the question lies at the core of Peter Morgan’s new play Patriots, directed by Rupert Goold and starring Tom Hollander. Dramatising the words and actions of four key figures from that not-so-historical period, the result is absorbing and chilling even if the outcome in reality remains uncertain.
The protagonist is Boris Berezovsky, mathematics prodigy turned businessman who sees the collapse of Communism as a chance to rescue Mother Russia from the grip of corrupt old men and guide – or perhaps push – her into a world of opportunity and choice (this literally a new word in Russian, we are told). As played by Hollander, Berezovsky is a little dynamo of human energy, spitting out orders, insults, witticisms and profanities at his hapless minions in the cause of making this new dream happen. “Infinity is at play,” he proclaims, riffing on that childhood talent. He is soon aided by FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko, played by Jamael Westman as a working class grafter seeking to do the right thing: “I work for my country,” Litvinenko asserts early on; “I work for our country too,” Berezovsky counters.
These “two fellow travellers” (a nice line, that) conduct their business upon a stage that is part nightclub, part catwalk and part casino, complete with brass rails, stools and deep red baize, a terrific effort from set designer Miriam Buether. It gets plenty of use from the principals and other members of the cast, who play multiple roles as barflies, secretaries, newsreaders and more.
Of course corruption is as much a part of Berezovsky’s activities as it was of the ancien régime’s, and he is soon deeply enmeshed in a major car sale scam in St Petersburg and injured by a car bomb that kills his driver. Both draw a local official into the story, a dull yet biddable bureaucrat by the name of Vladimir Putin (played – brilliantly – by Will Keen), whom Berezovsky gradually promotes and manipulates. Far more enthusiastically involved in Berezovsky’s schemes is Roman Abramovich, played by Luke Thallon as an awestruck but by no means gauche apprentice who is delighted when he tries Berezovsky’s chair for size before approaching him with his own oil-based venture.
Here there is some clunky exposition from Morgan, as the various ploys are set out along with facts that the characters would already know, although this is soon forgotten when dialogue of considerable eloquence arrives. Berezovsky’s old professor, sensitively played by Ronald Guttman, deadpans a wry meditation on the practical advantages of mothers versus wives, whilst Berezovsky’s terms for going into partnership with Abramovich achieve a kind of staccato poetry: “Nothing on paper. No contract. No deal. No definitions.” And as Berezovsky plots a route for Putin to enter the Kremlin, aided by Boris Yeltsin’s widow Tatiana (played by Aoife Hinds), there is a neat summary of the man who will rise even further in Russia’s political hierarchy as clever (but not very), athletic (but not very), and so on.
Further plays on words occur as the relationship between Berezovsky and Abramovich becomes more testy, the latter realising that that very lack of ‘definition’ might well leave him out in the cold. “Define yourself,” invites Berezovsky, knowingly, as a nervous Abramovich arrives, whilst Berezovsky’s own description of what they each have become is disturbing. Living the role completely, Hollander is extraordinary and almost exhausting, flipping his mood and mode as needed and revelling in each line even if some might perhaps benefit from a slightly more restrained delivery.
It is soon clear that the rise of Putin is as vital to the story as the power of Berezovsky, with a concern that Russia has spent so much time as an empire, it has forgotten what it is as a country. It’s a smart phrase and one that also encapsulates the play’s themes. The first act ends with the still-naïve Putin asking why there is a banqueting table in the president’s office before being told that that is his desk. That Putin might perhaps become a danger to Berezovsky as well as a tool for him to use is hinted at in the closing scene, as Putin orders his aide to call a meeting of the top oligarchs in the country; it was at this now-notorious event that the new president made it clear who was really in charge.
That shift is confirmed after the interval, as the pressure on Berezovsky to maintain his interests in the face of a government crackdown increases. Faced with a plea from Abramovich for reasonable repayment arrangements, Berezovsky tears into the man he calls the Kid with a vicious, splenetic call for payment “in goats, sheep, boats, gold” or anything else he might demand. Berezovsky’s similar put down of Putin as a minion and a supplicant carries less charge but will later be reflected back in a grim reversal of fortune.
The groundwork for this happens in one of the play’s most compelling scenes. Putin arrives by helicopter – a minimalist yet superbly convincing coup de theatre involving nothing more than a stutter of lights, some dry ice and sound effects – in a remote territory to meet Abramovich at the end of a governorship gifted by the president. Enduring it was, explains Putin, a test of loyalty, something that “matters above all else. You can have all else, but you must be loyal.” Sneering at the London to which Berezovsky has by now fled as a place of “perfidy, hypocrisy and snobbery,” Keen shows Putin’s transformation with great skill in a performance that is quite the equal of Hollander’s.
Decisions and how they are made is a another thread that runs throughout the play, beginning with and often returning to the young Berezovsky’s quest for a mathematical theory that can explain this act. This again allows Morgan to craft an elegant moment between Berezovsky and his professor, now retired, revolving around formulas chalked on a backboard. Warm yet poignant, it sets the tone for what follows. In London Berezovsky embarks on a disastrous civil action to secure from Abramovich what he believes is rightfully his, only to find their unwritten partnership a problem and the judge ruling against him. Back in Moscow and now wielding supreme power, meanwhile, Putin dictates a final letter to Berezovsky, offering terms for his safe return to the country he loves. In it, though, Putin excoriates what he sees as Berezovsky’s flaws, errors and ambition, made all the more chilling by being spoken with great calm and precision and by the act that closes the scene.
As the end nears, Berezovsky finds comfort in the songs of popular Russian singer Vladimir Vysotsky, which have appeared throughout the play from its very start. There is much melancholy in Hollander’s final dance, drinking to his past and that of his country as he sings the lyrics to ‘Song of a Friend’ (‘If your friend has suddenly turned out/To be neither friend nor foe - just so-so/If you can’t tell right away/Whether he’s good or bad…). The ghost of Litvinenko – fatally poisoned by Putin’s agents – appears to console Berezovsky and, in a blackly comic touch, assist him in making his planned suicide appear as another murder to be laid at Putin’s door. “He’s happy for me to be alive,” muses Berezovsky, “that’s what’s killing me.”
Despite its obvious simplifications, occasional awkwardness and a running time that – along with the text – would have benefitted from some editing, this is another success for Goold in his parallel role as the Almeida’s artistic director. The boldness, directness and intensity of the concept is well served by cast and crew for the most part, and the twin treats of Hollander and Keen make it something special. Of course more recent events have proved that ‘my country, right or wrong’ can have many adherents; Morgan shows us, at the very least, what that might mean to some who say as much.
Patriots continues at the Almeida Theatre, London, until 20 August 2022