Patriots review: Tom Hollander gives one of the performances of the year in Peter Morgan’s play

Tom Hollander as the Russian oligarch turned political dissident Boris Berezovsky in Peter Morgan’s ‘Patriots’ at the Almeida Theatre (Marc Brenner)
Tom Hollander as the Russian oligarch turned political dissident Boris Berezovsky in Peter Morgan’s ‘Patriots’ at the Almeida Theatre (Marc Brenner)

No one is having more fun in this heatwave than Tom Hollander. In Peter Morgan’s Patriots, playing the Russian oligarch turned political dissident Boris Berezovsky, he glowers. He grumps. He prances. He shouts. And he gives us one of the most compelling stage performances of the year so far. If the play sometimes gets heavy – the political and economic fate of post-Soviet Russia is no episode of Love Island – Hollander skips through it lightly.

Although written before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, Morgan’s play taps into current world events with masterful precision. The writer of The Crown and Frost/Nixon is an apt choice, too: he’s always been more interested in how power is acquired and built, and in the people who – whether by accident or design – have to wear it. We begin by meeting Berezovsky, who was found dead in 2013 in an apparent suicide, as a young man. He’s a gifted mathematician but he gives up the academic life to become a businessman and political kingmaker in a crucial era for his country.

That he did a PhD in decision-making but became tortured by the choices he made is this play’s favourite metaphor. Early on, Berezovsky gets a phone call from a nobody deputy mayor called Vladimir Putin. Believing him to be malleable, he gives the future president a leg-up through the ranks that he later comes to regret. Along the way, Berezovsky falls into business with an ambitious young man called Roman Abramovich; he also becomes pals with Alexander Litvinenko. He faces threats to his life and is eventually forced into exile after speaking out against Putin’s regime. The puppet master loses control of the strings in dramatic fashion.

Patriots is a play in two registers. There are the witty lines, the erudite speeches and the moral conundrums that we’ve come to expect from Morgan’s work. “When I met you, you were a man with a pipe dream. Literally a dream about a pipe,” Berezovsky says of oil tycoon Abramovich. The other register, though, is one that’s weighed down by research and exposition. The verbiage comes fast: there’s talk of hyperinflation and Perestroika and kryshas. At one point, someone casually drops the Magna Carta into conversation. It’s a bit much – but its more engaging tone is enough to keep us intermittently entertained.

There are plenty of great performances in Rupert Goold’s production. Will Keen’s Putin grows from nervy and ingratiating to bold and sinister, all the while maintaining his buttoned-up body language, right up to the mouth pursed into a straight line. Luke Thallon eerily has exactly the same speckled facial hair as Abramovich, and he crosses his arms like him too. Jamael Westman, best known as the West End’s first Hamilton, is dynamic as Litvinenko, but I’m not sure why he has a Scouse accent. And in a very blokey play, Yolanda Kettle is moving but underused as his wife Marina.

Before we see Putin rise to power, characters in the play keep referring to him in patronising terms – a bit of a loser but basically seems like a decent guy. The joke becomes repetitive. But as a study of the making of a tyrant, and those who are implicated along the way, it may be exactly the kind of thought exercise we are all craving right now. But what you want to see is Hollander. His Berezovsky stands perfectly still, craning his neck, looking around with crazed eyes, his fingers floating as though holding an invisible orb. He plays him as a man who knows he’s always the cleverest person in the room, and therefore all the more pained by his outmanoeuvring. It’s never quite clear if he has been motivated by principles or self-interest. That’s the beauty of Hollander’s performance: it gives us so much but ultimately remains unknowable.