Almeida Theatre, London – until 20 August 2022
Here’s a fresh history play: confrontational, shocking, classic in its focus on vast flawed characters and pretty close to documented – and very recent – reality. It has all the elements: a kingmaker whose creation turns on him, acolytes and shifting alliances, self-serving arrogance, passionate romantic patriotism, politics and big money and tragedy and defeat. Fresh from the new RSC Richard III, near the end I almost expected Tom Hollander’s mesmerising Berezovsky to offer his kingdom for a horse.
It’s wonderful, never a dull moment and jammed with ideas: political, ethical and, because our hero was a mathematician, philosophical: there’s even a brief discussion with his Professor as to whether the limitation of infinity is its own limitlessness.
It’s by Peter Morgan: not in the mode of his rather soap-schlocky, dragged-out Netflix The Crown, but the sharp old stage Morgan who gave us Frost/Nixon and The Audience. Indeed it demonstrates immaculately how – as in Shakespeare’s histories – a huge, complex piece of history can be reduced to diamond-sharp focus on a group of key players with clashing motives and characters.
We are in the 1990s: Mikhail Gorbachev had reached towards more Western ways and an open economy, the rigid old Soviet Union collapsed and free market chaos grew in Russia’s. Yeltsin decade of crazy inflation, gangsterism, state enterprises carelessly sold off to businessmen amassing huge fortunes: the oligarchs we are even now feebly sanctioning. Swathes of national assets fell into the hands of a handful of individuals as a weak premier, like King John, dealt with robber-barons: as the kingpin Boris Berezovsky remarks, the political deals they made for their own prosperity were their Magna Carta.
As Berezovsky, Hollander deploys his astonishing capacity to move between smooth amused witty ruthlessness and terrifying explosions of rage. He paints it as Russia’s new age of choice and opportunity, an awakening of a land too long frozen in sleep: the play is book-ended with him musing on the Russian soul, warmly romantic and misunderstood, a thing of snowy vistas and old songs by warm firesides.
The “kid” Roman Abramovich (Luke Thallon) who this alpha-male takes under his wing has his own venal ambitions; meanwhile the hesitant, rather weedy provincial deputy-mayor Putin asks for Berezovsky’s help up the political ladder, gets it, and manoeuvres himself into the supreme power he still holds today. The upright security-policeman Litvinenko, a very impressive Jamael Westman, at first resists the Berezovsky approaches then, outraged by being officially ordered to kill him, joins him and publicly denounces corruption, and gets arrested.
As Putin’s grip tightens, Berezovsky defies him “across 11 time zones” on the TV channel he owns. We know what happened next. We know what Putin became capable of, all the way to Litvinenko’s murder, the bitter and rathe dodgy UK court case between the exile and the confident Abramovich, and the murder or suicide – open verdict still – of Berezovsky.
Drama imagines, truncates, emphasises clashes, and here it is done with elan under Rupert Goold’s tight direction, set cleanly by Miriam Buether on and around a vast red platform before a brick wall with one huge doorway, sometimes revealing a mirror as Will Keen’s frightening, pallid little Putin gradually grows in cold-hearted confidence. No flashy effects: the script does the work in a series of seductive or confrontational scenes so numerous I stopped noting them . Though the moment when Berezovsky tears into his television studio to demolish the shameful lies about the deaths and negligence of submarine Kursk is unforgettable, and so is the moment when Putin, once a humble petitioner in an ill-fitting suit, turns on Berezovsky in his new autocratic confidence. “It’s a foolish man who ignores the President” he observes coolly, to which the oligarch explodes “Not if he created that President! Plucked him out of a deputy-mayor cupboard..you are my creature!”.
It’s tremendous , electric drama, but its strength is the way that all four main protagonists travel through emotional growth or into decadence before our eyes. Hollander’s Berezovsky burns at last with more than his original pragmatic vision, suffering in UK asylum a yearning exile’s heimweh. Putin’s patriotism is a chillier, harder thing , expressed in a haunting scene on a cold fogbound eastern shore where he had sent Abramovich as regional governor. Line after line, especially Will Keen’s, resonate grimly with the events of this year in Ukraine. The simplicities of commentators who assume that oligarchs or the discontented populace will soon overthrow the monster are implicitly challenged. There’s power in calls to the Russian soul. You leave into the hot night both thrilled with the drama and full of difficult thoughts. Which is how it should be.
Box office almeida.co.uk. to 20 Aug.