From Hamilton to Litvinenko – Jamael Westman talks playing historical Alexanders on stage
The WhatsOnStage Award-winning actor plays Alexander Litvinenko in the new thriller from The Crown creator Peter Morgan
Jamael Westman is building up a roster of world-famous Alexanders to play. After originating the titular role in Hamilton's West End premiere, he now tackles famous Russian spy Litvinenko in The Crown creator Peter Morgan's first play in seven years – Patriots.
Running at the Almeida, Morgan's piece is a deep dive into the political turmoil of '90s Russia, telling the life of famous Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky (played by Tom Hollander), who was found dead in his home in 2013. It marks something of a gear-shift for a writer who, over the last decade, has seen his name most frequently attached to Netflix's runaway success The Crown. How does Westman feel working with Morgan's text? "The language is so excellent – you can find so many colours in the comedy and tragedy. While he obviously wrote it a few years ago now, the present times have elevated his words in a way no one could have anticipated. The work, the research and the interviews he's done are so meticulous."
That research involved interviewing Litvinenko's own wife Marina, who remains an ardent critic of the present Russian leadership. "She was so amazing, humbling to have her in the room, sharing her story with us. Marina is someone with such resilience, such grace, and such power – in the face of what might feel a world away. It changes everything in terms of our relationship with the text."
The rehearsal process has only amplified this: "Reading it for the first time it all felt eerily prophetic – Peter Morgan wrote the play three years ago but, even before that, Boris and Alexander were all already warning about the grave threat Putin might be not just to Russia, but on the rest of the world."
Westman is approaching the role with Litvinenko as a true patriot – a man willing to defend Russia against its enemies. Enemies can, after all, be either external or internal.
Westman explains the pertinence of it all, especially given the last five months of warfare: "The more I discovered, the more I felt that it is imperative that we understand this period in history. It provides a context for where Russia is right now, and how it's got to this place. While it's not centred on Putin, because of his relationship with Boris, Putin's rise pings out. It shows how he got there, particularly because people didn't take him seriously. It's the same way people might not have taken Covid seriously when it first hit the headlines (we just thought it'd all blow over in a month!)."
It's a framework that Westman has approached other issues: "I don't know if it's complacency or a group mentality. It's similar to the way we look at government or the British Empire – the legacy of these things shows a serious impact."
The domestic headlines of the last few months will also spring into audiences' minds, he hopes: "How did we, as British people with differing interpretations of what Britishness and patriotism mean, get to where we're at now? With a government that, frankly, has displayed a clear negligence and lack of care for life – especially when some in the executive are partying while people are dying, or kept away from their loved ones and suffering alone."
I spoke to Westman almost five years to the day after his casting in Hamilton was made public. In the intervening period, he's also led shows at the Old Vic, while starring alongside the likes of Tom Hiddleston and Claire Danes in Apple series The Essex Serpent. I asked him to reflect back on that time: "I now have a different, deeper appreciation and value for life – valuing who you work with and the moments you get. Those moments do go by. I've also loved being able to find safe, creative spaces. Everything I've achieved wouldn't have happened if I'd not been surrounded by people who made me feel safe and supported.
"On top of that, focussing on acting has led me to ask what exactly do I want to do – which brings up questions of humanity and a deeper interrogation of who we are as people and how we relate to each other. That could be through patriotism in this case, through friendship in Essex Serpent or patriotism again in Hamilton – what it means to fight for your country."
Giles Terera recently released a gripping book – Hamilton and Me – about his experiences working alongside Westman in bringing the musical to the West End. I ask Westman how he felt reading about himself on the page. He laughs: "I think I recall him describing me as 'one minute a pirate, the other minute a monk', which absolutely nails it. That's how I've been for a long time. Giles was always a shining light for me – in his eloquence, in his humanity and in his gentleness. There's a risk-taking bravery in how he operates and works."
Westman is only just getting started and, if he needed a niche, there are plenty more Alexanders left to stage – Bell, Pope, Ferguson, Fleming, the Great?