Patriots review and star rating: ★★★
There’s an uncomfortable contemporaneity about Peter Morgan’s Patriots, which
first opened at the Almeida last July. It takes Putin as its subject and in the nearly twelve months since its premiere, the dictator has been responsible for the deaths of around 9,000 unarmed Ukrainian civilians; many thousands remain in asylum in Britain, displaced by war.
It lends Patriots an eeriness before anything has even happened, and then Will Keen amps up the weirdness with his unputdownable performance as 1990s Vladimir Putin. Keen’s Putin skulks around more awkwardly than formidably, but nevertheless this youngster is an unsettling presence with a laser stare, stressful energy and weird conversational gambits about ostensibly ordinary things. Looking back, there were plenty of red flags about the sort of man he was.
We’re gathered around a casino table in Russia in the aftermath of Mikhail Gorbachev’s resignation as President. Following the breakdown of the Soviet Union, Russia’s corrupt oligarchs stood as much of a chance at power and influence as its political forces, and one such oligarch was Boris Berezovsky, around whom the Patriots plot oscillates.
He is a charming, charismatic bastard who made billions by gaining control of some of Russia’s biggest assets, including the main TV channel. Morgan explores the ways Berezovsky bent the truth at the same time as purporting to be the oracle of it in his fight against the Russian state,
following his falling out with Putin.
Tom Hollander brings Berezovsky to vivid life, charting his spectacular journey from the man who literally put Putin in office to the man who lost everything after falling foul of the Kremlin. Hollander steers the oligarch brilliantly from zany and overflowing with confidence to low-shouldered and beaten down, only able to offer futile efforts to regain his strength.
These are some thoroughly engaging storylines in a production that makes use of all of the Rupert Goold bells and whistles: one projection of Hollander’s distorted face is displayed
high on the walls, demonstrating Goold’s knack for finding the rawest part of a person and splashing it across the stage. Taking place on one evergreen casino table, the staging recalls Goold’s triumphs like Enron and Earthquakes in London, in which characters are paraded, one by one, past the audience to be dissected.
I didn’t quite find myself hankering for more, though. Perhaps it’s Morgan’s writing, which feels authentic and truthful but tries to obligingly fit in too many details. It could have benefitted from taking a moment for characters to explore an instant, or feeling, in real time. It ends up a little too linear, which, of course, war and dictators rarely are.
Patriots plays at the Noel Coward Theatre until 19 August