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'Patriots' review — a monstrously entertaining account of Vladimir Putin's kingmaker

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

Peter Morgan, our well-established chronicler of modern history – from TV dramas The Crown and The Deal to plays like Frost/Nixon and The Audience – now turns his shrewd gaze on Vladimir Putin. Or rather onto the man who claims that he “made” Putin, billionaire oligarch Boris Berezovsky, and who, in the exhilarating Patriots, then battles the President for the soul of Russia.

Morgan’s version of events has something of the tragic arc of Frankenstein: the brilliant but arrogant man who rejects his creation in horror and is destroyed by it. There’s also a fascinating thread running through the piece about the dangers of pursuing the infinite – whether limitless fortune or power – which ties into Berezovsky’s origins as a child maths genius.

Such meaty ideas help us stick with this epic biographical play, which is otherwise a fairly straightforward zip through Berezovsky’s eventful life. We meet him in mid-1990s Moscow where he’s juggling multiple phone calls – a smug spider in the centre of his web. He’s set to profit handsomely from the Soviet Union’s plunge into capitalism, but he has loftier ambitions than money-making: he also wants to buy the main TV channel and shape opinion, to help fuel this second Russian revolution.

Into this free-for-all shuffles a beige figure, a young Putin, at this stage just the deputy mayor of St Petersburg. Immediately he’s an awkward fit in Berezovsky’s world, refusing to be bribed with a flashy new car (Berezovsky divines that he values the car his hard-working Soviet parents saved up for). But Putin will later call in that favour, asking for a job in Yeltsin’s administration.

Here we see perhaps the greatest political miscalculation in history. Berezovsky (who, ironically, has a PhD in decision-making theory) thinks Putin is a little nobody, a charisma vacuum with a side parting who is good at taking orders – the perfect puppet Prime Minister. Yeltsin’s daughter hesitates: “Little is dangerous.” Little people want to be perceived as big. But Berezovsky is sure that he knows best. So Putin becomes PM, and Berezovsky’s TV coverage makes him a star.

From there, we see the Putin playbook gradually take shape. There’s the instinct to cover up a submarine disaster and spin a positive story in the press, the muddying of fact and opinion, the false-flag terrorist attacks and authoritarian crackdown, and the terrible icy vengeance unleashed when he feels disrespected or betrayed. Loyalty is all – but loyalty to him, not to Russia.

For Berezovsky, the two soon diverge. The dramatic irony is laid on thick by Morgan’s frequently humorous script: initially, this complacent kingmaker thinks Putin shares his passion to liberalise the mother country. By the time he realises that Putin actually wants to return to Soviet-era state control, it’s too late. But we’re guilty of complacency as well, accuses Morgan; it’s chilling to hear Berezovsky, in a 2003 speech, warning the West that Putin would threaten our world order.

A barnstorming performance from Tom Hollander makes this a gripping human duel, as well as an ideological one. His Berezovsky is gleeful, wired and relentless, barely phased by an assassination attempt, and drunk on his own strategic brilliance. Putin’s heel turn is therefore a humiliating personal failure. Hollander is monstrously entertaining throughout, and wrings real pathos out of his eventual lonely exile.

Excellent, too, is Will Keen as the grey man lurking in the shadows: the deceptively menacing, and uncompromising, Putin. There's good support from Luke Thallon as Roman Abramovich - here a shuffling, awkward wunderkind - Ronald Guttman as a philosophical maths professor, and Jamael Westman and Yolanda Kettle as Alexander and Marina Litvinenko.

However, the Litvinenkos get rather lost in the mix. Their story is far better explored in Lucy Prebble’s 2019 play A Very Expensive Poison, which also employed more formal inventiveness to depict Putin’s truth-bending. Morgan, in contrast, plays it safe here with his chronological sweep, although Rupert Goold’s dynamic production adds theatrical fizz.

It makes great use of Miriam Buether’s thrust stage, which, with bold lighting shifts from Jack Knowles, takes the gleaming catwalk from a noisy capitalist nightclub to the imposing grandeur of the Kremlin. Russian songs and ballroom dancing have thematic significant, too, while giving us the odd break from expository speeches. Even so, the piece could use a few trims: it tends to skim the surface of established facts, rather than digging for new discoveries.

But Morgan has inarguably produced a work that speaks to the moment – not just in terms of the war in Ukraine, but our own political squabbles. My audience groaned in recognition as Berezovsky fumed about “mediocre people worming their way into office, then failing the minute they get there”, and at Putin’s retort that we should also beware “a colourful [person] who loves only themselves.” How do we separate pride, ambition and greed from genuine patriotism? British voters, as well as Russian, urgently need to answer that question.

Patriots is at the Almeida Theatre to 20 August.

Photo credit: Tom Hollander in Patriots. (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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