So, why has Putin invaded Ukraine? Why has Putin set about attacking his neighbour, and laying once great cities to waste? A good place to start if you want an answer, if you want to understand the complex intricacies that have brought war, once again, to Europe’s doorstep, would be this play, Patriots. It’s at once a historical document and a thrilling, compelling, theatrical exploration of Vladimir Putin and his cronies, and his former cronies, his estranged cronies and the traitorous ex-crony who put him where he is and who treacherously (according to Putin) disagreed with him, defied him, and ultimately turned against him which, of course, was never going to end well. That ex-crony, the biggest crony of them all – Boris Berezovsky – is the mathematical genius and king-making charlatan that Patriots is all about along with the latter-day Frankenstein monster that he unwittingly created, of course.
This is a play that makes you think; and once you’ve thought it makes you think again.
The staggeringly sumptuous performance by Tom Hollander as Berezovsky dominates proceedings as his colourful devil-may-care vibe is cleverly set against the drab devil-take-the-hindmost pallor of the former Intelligence Officer-cum-President. Berezovsky is everything that Putin is not whereas Putin, eventually, is everything.
Whilst Hollander rants and swears his disarming way through anything from complex mathematical equations to billion-dollar rouble-scams Will Keen as Putin is quiet, mostly, reserved, mostly, sinister, more than mostly and clearly what an ex-American president might term a “whack job” complete with forensically penetrating death-stare. It’s a brilliantly chilling performance and I for one wouldn’t want to wander out of the Noel Coward Theatre into one of those little dark alleyways nearby and bump into Keen in this Uber-intimidating guise.
You get the feeling throughout the show that Keen and Hollander together are like unstable dynamite waiting to happen and that volatility supersedes the rouble as their currency of choice.
They are joined in a demonic triumvirate by the guy who reinvented Chelsea FC – Roman Abramovich. Luke Thallon plays this epitome of Oligarchness as a soft and cuddly machete, a jungle-wise example of the survival of the trickiest.
The interplay between these three is riveting and unsettling; three nice, polite guys who would chop your toes off if it became necessary to feed their wealth, their ambition and their planet-sized egos. Masterful performances.
These principals are energetically supported by a high-quality cast including Josef Davies as Alexander Litvinenko and the classy Stefani Martini as his wife, Martina – victims of Putin’s assassinations-to-go policy. The vibrant Evelyn Miller shows her versatility in a number of characters as does the equally vibrant Jessica Temple. Ronald Guttman’s slightly-dotty professor turn offers some light relief from the high-stakes political poker game and Howard Gossington adeptly plies his trade in multiple roles whilst the urgency and explosive turmoil are kept at boiling point throughout by Rupert Goold’s expert staging and direction.
A feature of the show is the fiery lighting design by Jack Knowles who knows how to create a war-zone effect to complement the thunderous events taking place. Coupled with an explosively percussive soundscape by Adam Cork these effects never allow us to forget that the underscoring drumbeat of conflict is the driving force behind all of Putin’s actions and that his penchant for lashing out at The West – now via Ukraine – is his ultimate raison d’être.
Yes, Peter Morgan’s excellent play is instructive and thoroughly absorbing. In fact, it’s so good, so clinically intensive, so disturbingly prophetic that it could never be staged within Putin’s Russia. Though his response might well be to the scenario that portrays him as a psychopath: “You’re underselling me”.
Review by Peter Yates
“If the politicians cannot save Russia, then we businessmen must. We have not just the responsibility but the duty to become Russian heroes”
1991, The Fall of the Soviet Union. With the dawning of a new Russia, there are winners and losers, and today’s patriot can fast become tomorrow’s traitor.
As a new generation of oligarchs fights to seize control, Patriots follows billionaire businessman Boris Berezovsky from the president’s inner circle to public enemy number one.
Noël Coward Theatre, London
26 May 2023 – 19 Aug 2023
2h 40m (incl. 1 interval)