Almeida Theatre, London – until 20 August 2022
Peter Morgan’s new play is a history lesson, filling in the gaps in our understanding of how we ended up where we are now. Specifically, it connects events in Russia after the fall of Communism with the high profile deaths in the UK of Russians who had fallen out with Vladimir Putin and, more implicitly, with the invasion of Ukraine and the state of Russia today.
There is no doubt that the story of Boris Berezovsky is fascinating, providing important insight into how Russia ended up led by a brutal autocrat. It is, however, a story without sympathetic characters. Tom Hollander, in a fairly remarkable physical transformation, plays Berezovsky as a balding Richard III – a charming bully used to having things his own way, whose inevitable downfall is as much part of his character as his success. He is very watchable, but there is no hiding the fact the Berezovsky was a greedy, ruthless criminal and a complete bastard, just not as ruthless as Putin.
Morgan flashes back to Berezovsky’s childhood as a maths prodigy, with Ronald Guttman as the professor who took him under his wing, and highlights his decision to turn away from a self-contained life of equations on blackboards (mathematics on stage must always involve chalk) to engage with the world as it opened up under Boris Yeltsin. However, he doesn’t manage to get to the heart of why the world he chose to join was the post-Communist gangster capitalism of the 1990s, where he made a fortune from importing and illegally reselling cars. His role, however, in putting Putin where he is now is well told.
Will Keen plays Putin as so reserved as to be almost tongue-tied when Berezovsky plucks him from an obscure role as Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg and has the Yeltsin family appoint him head of the FSB then, when Yeltsin resigns on millennium eve, makes him Prime Minister. Keen’s subtle, increasingly terrifying portrayal shows him growing in confidence while remaining in the shadows until he can seize his moment, and reject the man who expected to control him. Berezovsky’s downfall begins here and ends with his 2013 suicide in luxury exile in the UK.
Elements of the story connect in ways that surprise: for example, the notorious murder of Alexander Litvinenko (Jamael Westman) in London in 2006 is an inherent part of the story. As Berezovsky’s head bodyguard his killing was a message for the exiled oligarch.
Director Rupert Goold draws a great deal of entertainment from a dark story of increasingly desperate political and criminal gambles. Miriam Buether’s set has a pair of catwalks set at right angles, with characters on these but also on high stools beside them at ground level, partially hidden from circle seats and a complicated arrangement that doesn’t obviously serve the production. Patriots struggles, as plays that try to document history over long periods often do, with the balance between teaching the audience about events and allowing the characters to live. In this case, the result is too much telling and not enough showing.