Patriots at the Almeida Theatre review: Tom Hollander stars in Peter Morgan’s cracking oligarchs’ tale

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·3-min read
Patriots at the Almeida Theatre review: Tom Hollander stars in Peter Morgan’s cracking oligarchs’ tale
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In this witty, thrilling battle of political wills, Peter Morgan tells the story of Boris Berezovsky, the oligarch who arguably created Vladimir Putin and was then destroyed by him.

Teeth bared, eyes glittering and pate starkly shaved, Tom Hollander gives a riveting performance as the businessman, brimming with sardonic swagger even after surviving a car bomb. He’s matched by Will Keen as Putin, who visibly hardens and tightens over the course of the action, like a conker in an oven.

Rupert Goold’s boiled-down production showcases the gift for concision and emotional grounding that Morgan brought to The Crown, The Queen, and his New Labour succession drama The Deal. The most obvious comparison is with the writer’s 2006 cat-and-mouse play Frost/Nixon, where the chat show host and the former president endlessly gamed each other. This, though, is an even more innately macho story, where even patriotism is a badge of alpha pride, and the stakes are much more deadly.

The cast of Patriots (Marc Brenner)
The cast of Patriots (Marc Brenner)

We’re first introduced to Berezovksy as a nine-year-old maths prodigy. Then immediately fast forward 40 years to 1995, and to the dodgy Moscow nightclub HQ where he’s carving a fortune out of Russian president Boris Yeltsin’s attempts at hybrid capitalism, balancing calls with partners, rivals, his wife and his teenage girlfriend.

Putin is then just a St Petersburg functionary to be wooed, Roman Abramovich a “kid” to be ignored until his pipe dream – “literally a dream about a pipe” – offers a way to start monetising Russia’s vast state energy sector. Berezovsky does favours and pulls strings, demanding fealty or a huge off-the-books slice of the pie in return.

Morgan has always been more interested in grey areas than in moral certainties. Hollander’s Berezovsky is horrible but glows with Mephistophelean charm. Both he and Putin claim, and apparently believe, that they want to “save” Russia, at whatever personal or political profit to themselves.

Jamael Westman as Litvinenko (with Yolanda Kettle as his wife Marina) is a bit wasted (Marc Brenner)
Jamael Westman as Litvinenko (with Yolanda Kettle as his wife Marina) is a bit wasted (Marc Brenner)

Tony Blair’s administration granted Berezovsky political asylum. But a British court denied his claim that his assets had been wrongly transferred to Abramovich. The elegant diffidence of Luke Thallon as the former Chelsea FC owner is deceptive. Only Alexander Litvinenko, the FSB operative who quit to guard Berezovsky, is unashamedly upright. So he only gets a couple of good scenes and a swansong after his horrific murder, by radioactive Polonium, on British soil. A bit of a waste of Jamael Westman, breakout star of the original London production of Hamilton.

Miriam Buether’s set variously evokes a bar, a catwalk, a Kremlin stateroom and a place of glory or crucifixion. Goold’s direction is economical and unremittingly pacy, but assigns random regional accents to characters willy-nilly. The shoehorning of facts into dialogue, and the deployment of Berezovsky’s mathematical interest in infinity and the science of decision-making are a bit obvious. But overall this is a cracking, exciting piece of theatre that’s become, sadly, very timely.

Almeida Theatre, to August 20; almeida.co.uk

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