“Patriots” – Almeida Theatre

Neil Dowden in north London.

Peter Morgan has made a successful career of imagining what went on behind the scenes of contemporary history in works like The Crown, The Deal, and The Queen. Now in Patriots he turns his attention to the post-Soviet Union of the 1990s under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, whose rushed privatization of state industries led to a form of gangster capitalism, with widespread corruption and chaos. It also led to the rise of oligarchs like Boris Berezovsky, who is the main character of this play, focusing particularly on his fluctuating relationship with nationalist Vladimir Putin, who restored stability by turning Russia into a mafia state. It’s a compelling account of crucial events in the last few decades that have ended with Russia becoming a pariah nation.

 

Tom Hollander. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

 

We briefly see Berezovsky as a young maths prodigy (with a doctorate in decision-making theory who dreams of winning an academic prize), before he becomes a billionaire businessman wielding huge power in the new Russian Federation. He gets involved in politics by buying the state TV network to campaign for the re-election of Yeltsin. And he is the “kingmaker” who ensures that Yeltsin’s successor at the dawn of the new century is Putin, the former deputy mayor of St Petersburg whom he had already championed as head of the federal security service FSB. But Berezovsky falls out disastrously with the man he expected to “do his bidding”, especially after blaming Putin on TV for the Kursk submarine disaster, and is forced into political asylum in the UK in 2003.

We also see Berezovsky falling out with former protégé and business partner Roman Abramovich, after a failed court battle with him over the ownership/sale of the Russian oil/gas company Sibneft. Soon after, facing bankruptcy, Berezovsky is found dead at his Berkshire home in 2013, the cause apparently suicide.

Berezovsky’s fall overlaps with that of FSB whistle-blower Alexander Litvinenko, who claims that his superiors were responsible for the failed car bomb assassination of Berezovsky, whose security chief he becomes. Also an exile in the UK, he himself is murdered by Russian spies with the radioactive Polonium in 2006.

Morgan portrays Berezovsky as a charismatic megalomaniac, who alternates persuasive charm with angry explosions, and bribery with threats, in his efforts to get what he wants. He believes everyone has a price in the new neoliberal economy. But he ends as a tragic figure whose hubris has led to his downfall; a deeply flawed man who nonetheless later tries to warn the West of Putin’s threat. Frankenstein’s creature has run amok.

 

The company. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

 

The title of Morgan’s play suggests that Berezovsky and Putin represent two different, distorted versions of patriotism. The former believed in Western-style democracy and freedom of speech for the Russian people, but his aggressive entrepreneurial approach exploited the country’s assets in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the communist regime. The latter reformed the way Russia was dominated by an elite group of mega-rich businessmen, but his style of populist leadership has deprived Russians of their civil rights. Both men are shown to sincerely believe they are patriots, but both are blinded by their macho egotism.

Patriots is only Morgan’s third stage play (following Frost/Nixon and The Audience), and sometimes it feels like we are being overstuffed with information in a work that addresses a lot of big topics. It’s not as theatrically inventive as Lucy Prebble’s 2019 play A Very Expensive Poison (which covers some of the same ground, with the focus on Litvinenko), but it’s still a fascinating rollercoaster ride through recent Russian history.

It is helped by Rupert Goold’s characteristically dynamic, fluid, and pacey production, which ingeniously uses all parts of the stage area. Designer Miriam Buether’s thrust configuration suggests a seedy nightclub with fake chandeliers and red strip lights where shadowy men on bar stools drown themselves in vodka – the sort of place where the playboy Berezovsky would feel at home.

Wearing a wig with balding hair, Tom Hollander gives a richly entertaining performance as Berezovsky (including a bit of song and dance), conveying the complex man’s mercurial energy and cynical humour. He shows him developing from brash wheeler dealer with a taste for fast cars and young mistresses, to political outcast with an increasing melancholy both for himself and for his country.

As Putin, Will Keen becomes physically more assertive in his brilliant chilling portrayal of the growth of a monster, with a key moment when he poses in front of a mirror as he cultivates his “strong man” persona. He reveals Putin changing from an anti-corruption, loyal servant to the state, to becoming an autocrat who believes anything is justified to make Russia great again.

Luke Thallon’s diffident, shoegazing Abramovich suggests how his affable manner masks a single-minded determination to make money at any cost, which involved a Faustian pact with Putin which has only recently caught up with the former Chelsea FC owner. And Jamael Westman (best known for playing the title role in the musical Hamilton) also impresses as Litvinenko, the only genuine man of integrity who sacrifices his life in the cause of exposing the ugly truth behind the Putin regime – of which the full extent has become horrifyingly clear with the invasion of Ukraine this year.

 

Will Keen and Tom Hollander. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.