Patriots: Compelling battle for the soul of Russia
- Credit: Marc Brenner
2022 has already gifted us Bertie Carvel's uncanny incarnation of Donald Trump in Mike Bartlett's The 45th. Now, Will Keen offers insight into that other dangerous gorgon, Vladimir Putin, in Peter Morgan's take on post Soviet power and politics.
From the wide-shouldered suits and stiff gait, to the combover and humourless gimlet eyes, Keen's Putin is never caricatured, but suggests a hardening sense of power, and uncompromising imperialist vision on how to make his beloved Russia great again.
Rupert Goold's absorbing production, contrasts the former deputy mayor of St Petersburg to the man who put him in the Kremlin. Unlike his protegees - including starry-eyed "kid" Roman Abramovich - charismatic businessman Boris Berezovsky was exceptional - a maths scholar who it's suggested might have won a Nobel prize, but opted instead for hoovering up influence and state assets in Boris Yeltsin's Russia.
Sporting a bald pate and permanent state of bug eyed astonishment, Tom Hollander's Berezovsky is the chaotic kingmaker, cutting deals, banging out a song, surviving assassination bids and bankrolling presidential bids. He's also a patriot, but his vision involves free speech and unlimited markets.
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Brilliant, but not so clever as to be apoplectically surprised when his "puppet" seizes back power from the Oligarchs, his subsequent vendetta forces him to seek citizenship in Blair's Britain, where upright ex FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko (Jamael Westman) becomes his bodyguard before falling prey to poison.
While we know from The Crown that Morgan can condense swathes of history into drama, some exposition-laden dialogue, and odd tonal shift from playing for laughs to static two-handed scenes makes things uneven. (despite Luke Thallon's best efforts the shy, blinking Roman Abramovich is a hole in the air - would anyone care if he hadn't once owned Chelsea?)
But leaping around Miriam Buether's gaudy nightclub set, evoking the seedy haunts of Berezovsky's deals, Hollander is always compelling. As angry swagger curdles to forlorn exile, he cuts a tragic figure as the loser in this tussle for Russia's soul, his contested death - not murder - but Chekhovian sadness at enforced exile from the motherland.
Patriots runs at The Almeida, Islington until August 20. Visit almeida.co.uk/whats-on/patriots/2-jul-2022-20-aug-2022