In creator Peter Morgan’s latest fly-on-the-wall play the beasts of post-Communist stalk the stage.
Central is Boris Berezovsky, the oligarch who died an exile in England and superbly played here by stage and screen star Tom Hollander with a bald head and a charisma that sweeps all and everyone before it.
That is all except the unremarkable, rather gauche deputy mayor of St Petersburg. In Russia’s post-Soviet bun fight for money and power this underachieving politician was almost unknown until Berezovsky repaid a favour with a leg-up to a Kremlin job. After that his name, Vladimir Putin, became somewhat better known.
The real life characters in Rupert Goold’s entertaining production are so convincingly portrayed there are times when following the fallout between Putin and Berezovsky takes second place to simply gawping at the uncanny likenesses.
Luke Thallon’s diffident Abramovich and, fleetingly, Paul Kynman’s (Russian) bear-like Yeltsin are spot on. Though less so Jamael Westman’s Litvinenko, who in the context of the others oddly looks nothing like the man who was famously poisoned by Russian polonium in London.
But Will Keen’s Putin is astonishing, right down to the rolling gait of his walk and the simmering status anxiety, not only for his country but for himself.
Yet it is not terribly clear what compelled Morgan – who specialises in giving audiences front row seats to the hidden lives of the world’s elite – to write this play.
Granted the work serves as a timely and useful context for the motives behind Putin’s war in Ukraine. But the focus is on Berezovsky, a child maths prodigy who might have become a Nobel Prize winner had greed and his talent for exploiting Russia’s rampant new capitalism not detracted him.
So while downfalls are always fascinating, the lesson that people justify doing bad things by virtue signalling honourable motives – in this case patriotism – is hardly revelatory.
The thrill here is really getting close to what for many is the world’s worst person – Vladimir Putin. You can almost hear this human time-bomb tick.
Patriots is on at Almeida, .
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