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Patriots at the Almeida Theatre – review

Peter Morgan's new play stars Tom Hollander

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Will Keen and Tom Hollander in Patriots
© Marc Brenner

Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who was found dead while living in exile in the UK in 2013, is the timely focus of Peter Morgan's new drama. It is principally the story of how his political protege, a certain Vladimir Putin, left Berezovsky as a Frankensteinian figure who came to regret the monster he created.

Morgan, whose 2013 play The Audience grew into Netflix hit The Crown, has never been shy of showing powerful figures behind closed doors (see also Frost/Nixon). And so it proves here; the other major characters in the drama are Roman Abramovich and Alexander Litvinenko. It can feel at times like watching a pastiche of a modern Russian history play, as these globally infamous men slap each other's arms (there's a lot of arm slapping) and speak romantically of the motherland.

However, once you attune to the slight weirdness of it all, there is a meaty drama of money, power, friendship and betrayal to enjoy. Berezovsky is a ‘live by the sword, die by the sword' type; in the early scenes we see how his mathematical genius morphed into an obsession with the notions of decision-making and infinity, particularly in relation to money. He bribes his way to the top. Keen to further his commercial interests in the era of Yeltsin, he promotes Putin as the ideal puppet Prime Minister, one who will "do my bidding", before growing to regret his choice.

But, as played by the eminently likeable Tom Hollander, he is also a sympathetic figure, someone who had the guts to stand up to Putin when so many others – Abramovich included – would not. We all know where their failure to do so has led. Hollander shows him as a man able to sing Vysotsky love songs one minute before flying into a rage and slamming the piano shut the next; his (admittedly justified) genius complex is never far from the surface.

His foil as Putin is Will Keen, who gives an eerily believable portrayal of the enigmatic Russian dictator, from his early days as an upstanding regional mayor to a president coolly dispatching assassination threats from the Kremlin. He somehow humanises him, even in exchanges that feel at times overly contrived; an example being when he visits Abramovich on a Chukotka mountaintop to pontificate about loyalty.

There is a jumble of dialects; Jamael Westman (best known for playing another famous Alexander) gives Litvinenko – whose poisoning is particularly affecting – a broad scouse accent, and at one point there is a comic intervention from a Glaswegian nurse. Wisely, Bond film-esque Russian accents are largely avoided, but nevertheless it feels incongruously British, existing in a kind of pseudo-reality where Russia is filtered through a BBC sitcom lens.

Rupert Goold's characteristically lucid production plays out on Miriam Buether's plush red carpeted barroom set. Oligarchs are not known for their taste, and it all feels suitably gaudy. The thrust arrangement means characters can sit around the edge of the stage nursing their vodkas, and lends the whole thing a sense of immediacy. Jack Knowles' lighting is full of menacing shadows; in the opening scenes Putin lingers ominously in darkness.

It's highly watchable, and moves at a lick; Morgan writes with admirable precision. And it's good to get an insight into the machinations of the Russian state at a time when they're threatening to destabilise the world. But I'm not convinced Patriots tells us much that is profoundly new, and the play is not entirely successful in painting a fully dimensional portrait of Berezovsky. In the end he feels like a man whose story is more emblematic than emotionally involving.