‘Using theatre to entertain & appal’: A VERY EXPENSIVE POISON – Old Vic Theatre ★★★★★

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Old Vic Theatre, London – until 5 October 2019

On his deathbed in 2006 the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko asked to be photographed, to make public what had been done to him. The pale grim image stunned us all, including the playwright Lucy Prebble. He also made an uncompromising, dignified statement about his respect for Britain – he had achieved citizenship only a month before – and his certainty that the poisoning with polonium was done at President Putin’s behest.   Police work at last pretty much proved this, but governments of both colours explicitly preferred not to risk relations with Russia, and declared a “PII – Public Interest Immunity”. There was no public inquest or attempt to extradite the killers Lugovoi and Kovtun, or to remonstrate with Putin.

But in their teeth, his wife Marina Litvinenko and her lawyers fought for a public inquiry, and ten years later it reported damningly. She worked with the playwright and stands – played with headlong, convincing sincerity by MyAnna Buring – at the centre of this  extraordinary evening.

At her side, as the story is told backwards from the first anguished arrival in a baffled A&E, is an equally impressive Tom Brooke as the man himself: gangling, earnest, decent, a man of the FSB (formerly known as KGB) who clashed with a corrupt system by detective work revealing it, refused the “wet job” of murdering his boss Boris Berezovsky, and after arrest fled to London as an asylum seeker to spend six years briefing journalists and Russian contacts. The couple believed in British justice, but it failed him after his death. And as his wife says “To turn truth into justice we have to tell the story”.

The way it is told might raise eyebrows. There are addresses to the audience, meta-theatre moments both sinister and clowning. Reece Shearsmith’s arrogant, confident Putin swaggers out from below the double eagle and comments sardonically from the balcony.

The two absurdly incompetent murderers – who failed twice – bicker and get lost in the stalls. Between the domestic stories of the Litvinenkos and the doctors and nuclear scientists who decoded his fate we get lively ensemble interruptions. There are a couple of songs, one from Peter Polycarpou’s Bereszovsky about the glory of London as a playground for oligarchs.

There’s a weird brief interlude of giant TV puppets of Brezhnev and Yeltsin, a spoofily  patronizing Pushkin fairytale history of polonium in shadow-play,  and a nightclub interlude with a giant gold phallus.    But it is intelligently built and holds attention, and its truth is enhanced because every absurdity is real –  based on Luke Harding’s devastating book and on conversations with Mrs Litvinenko.    It is satisfying that Prebble,  who burst upon us with ENRON’s blend of absurdity, righteous fury, tight research and theatrical clowning,  should do it again with even more fury,   using theatre to entertain and appal  in a play she describes as “a risky, clumsy motherfucker” which might  “go down in flames” .

 

It won’t.  The very absurdity of the killers  (not unlike the pair who took the Novichok to Salisbury on an absurd pretext about the cathedral,  and killed a second victim by throwing away the perfume) underlines the banal horror of Russian state murders .  Remember Georgi Markov and the umbrella;  have a thought for Bereszovsky’s “open verdict” looking like suicide.  There is nothing tasteless about anger  being playful, mocking, headshaking: Swift or Voltaire would love it.  And the human reality is held constantly before us  in the  shining loving determination of Buring’s Marina Litvinenko.

 

Her final address, reminding us of our political cowardice and idly greedy tolerance of crooked Russian money in our capital city  will bring theatres to their feet in admiration for her  and shame at our shabbiness.  It needed telling.

box office   oldvictheatre.com    to 5 Oct.    It deserves to transfer.

principal partner: Royal Bank of Canada

rating  five

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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves on RssLibby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.

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