Old Vic Theatre, London – until 5 October 2019[Spoiler alert, this review discusses important moments in the production.]
If I’m the victim of a state sponsored assassination – something awful like a Polonium-210 suppository, administered by a gastroenterologist in the employ of a gangster cum dictator – all I ask is that theatreland leaves my story to journalists. I beg all playwrights to resist, because I didn’t go through that suffering – chronic pain, internal bleeding, the loss of my remaining hair, then organ failure, just so some hack, let’s say someone like Lucy Prebble, could reimagine my life and murder as a punishingly long, tonally schizoid journey from camp to mawkishness. Dignity in death, folks – dignity in death.
A Very Expensive Poison is one of those productions that must have got funders very excited. A worthy subject matter, a defence of liberal values and self-expression, topical political commentary; a play text that mashed genres and was self-reflexive – and plenty of broad jokes, so accessible too. What’s not to like?
Unfortunately, assisted by the Old Vic’s cramped, muscle-locking seating, ageing AV system (a flatline noise permeated the second half of my performance, implanting a metaphor) and some technical flubs – all of which will no doubt be given a lethal dose of radiation in previews, John Crowley’s play dies a slow and lingering death, much like…, well, you know.
In this audition for a chance to write a flippant political drama for Channel 4 that keeps us laughing, the facts are repackaged as low comedy and high farce, but with an earnest, finger-wagging undercurrent. Thus the Alexander Litvinenko poisoning is glibly retold with the dramatis personae boiled down to crude archetypes. All the way down to Vladimir Putin himself, who, in the form of Reece Shearsmith, becomes a malevolent comic character straight from Inside no. 9.
I confess to hating this method of flattening out complicated people and accentuating the inherent absurdities of their situations above all else, because it hollows out those moments in which the audience is required to invest in real horror and poignancy – like asking someone to taste wine after munching garlic.
In the first half, despite many scenes feeling overextended, there’s a nominal balance between the Litvinenkos’ plight and background in mother Russia (Tom Brooke and MyAnna Buring uneasily and sometimes problematically shifting between thick Russian and English accents as shorthand for those respective languages), and the domestic politics and human tragedy they’re caught up in. Prebble succeeds when she allows characters monologues that contexualise the Russian mindset and Putin’s regime. The play fares less well when it imagines the story as a self-aware sitcom.
After the interval, perhaps intimidated by the meat of the tale – international espionage and murder, the play opts to keep the audience interested by upping the farce and drawing monotonous attention to its own artifice (in case anyone was in danger of becoming too invested). Ostensibly this is a comment on constructing a narrative, the manipulation of the truth, but it’s also handy cover for the production’s inability to provoke and appal on a scale commensurate with the outrage it sluggishly re-enacts.
Buring breaks character toward the end in an odd attempt to reset the audience; reminding them it’s all been a bit of a lark but there’s a serious point to all this fucking about. Resuming, then thanking the audience for reading out the verdict into the public inquiry as Maria Litvinenko, is a strange and misjudged attempt at extending the real family’s struggle into this now neutered fantasy space.
Ultimately, though it’s in places informative, A Very Expensive Poison is a very expensive means of sapping the intrigue and human interest from one man’s inhumane death. With judicious cuts, greater focus and a tonal overhaul it could have been a worthy companion to the investigation that inspired it, but in its present, meandering form, it’s unlikely to either open minds or stimulate them.
A Very Expensive Poison is in previews at the Old Vic until September 4th, booking to October 5th.