How do you make a grown Russian man sing? Give him a piano and some vodka. How do you make him cry? Take him away from the Motherland.
Patriots has all the hallmarks of a good political drama. Court intrigues, outrageous backdoor deals, international conflict, even memorable, poisonous assassinations… It is after all the new play of Peter Morgan, best known for his historical hits such as Netflix’s The Crown, The Audience, or Frost/Nixon. Here Morgan examines the making of oligarchs in post-soviet Russia and the rise of one Vladimir Putin from deputy mayor of Saint Petersburg to President of the Russian Federation, all through the eyes of mathematician genius turned businessman and kingmaker, Boris Berezovsky.
Directed by Almeida Artistic Director Rupert Goold, this production often stands on the edge of Shakespearean epicness, never quite tipping over. The first half of the show follows Berezovsky as he pulls political strings and engineers Russian history, making influential leaders out of Kremlin-ambitious wannabes. Played by a gleeful and tempestuous Tom Hollander (The Night Manager, The King’s Man), the decision-making expert meets no real dramatic tension in fanboy Roman Abramovich (Luke Thallon) and the earnest Putin (Will Keen), then mostly looking for a leg-up into power and some political krysha – roof or protection in Russian. If anything, the first hour serves mostly as a historical set up for the great power games to begin.
Things change when Putin enters office. The newly appointed president orders a meeting with the oligarchic elite, effectively ending their undisputed supremacy and returning power into the hands of the State. Enraged his creation no longer follows orders, Berezovsky humiliates Putin in a colourful rant worthy of Ted Lasso’s F-bomb professional Roy Kent – calling him appointee, minion, a KGB nobody – and dragging his name through the mud on national television. A terrible move, which the I-don’t-negotiate-with-terrorists-I-destroy-them leader does not easily forget. The second half is dedicated to the annihilation of Berezosvky, his political exile to London and the strengthening of the president’s most trusted inner circle. A touching moment emerges when the businessman begs to return to his beloved Russia. He finally pledges his undivided loyalty to Putin and his rule so he can end his days at home as the mathematician he always dreamt of becoming. His letter goes unanswered. The president has no time for a “nobody”.
Keen as Putin is chilling. Seeing him physically transform into a bitter autocrat with a Napoleon complex is one of the most captivating experiences of the night. Berezovsky couldn’t fathom his political pawn standing up for himself and mercilessly calling the shots, and frankly neither could anyone at first.
The set by Miriam Buether – a cross-shaped disco bar in neon-red light doubling as an antechamber of Hell and political puppeteering – feels so authentically Muscovite one could almost taste the mayonnaise-filled sushi’s just looking at it.
Patriots makes for a very entertaining night out, expertly stringing together infamous historical moments in Russian’s modern political landscape, but it feels too slick. One would have hoped for a bit more dramatic oomph and a real examination of Putin’s expansionist ambitions to satisfyingly deliver the scope and greatness of Mother Russia.
Patriots plays till the 20th August 2022 at the Almeida Theatre. Tickets can be purchased here: https://almeida.co.uk/whats-on/patriots/2-jul-2022-20-aug-2022
Reviewer: Klervi Gavet
Reviewed: 14th July 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★