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  • Writer's picturePaul Gainey

Patriots, Noel Coward Theatre

Peter Morgan’s ‘Patriots’ feels both blessed and cursed by topicality. Clearly it would have been commissioned long before Russia’s genocidal invasion of Ukraine.

But here we are, some months into said invasion, and suddenly we have a play that tells the story of post-Soviet Russia via the rise and fall of the oligarchs – as represented by the rebellious Boris Berezovsky and compliant Roman Abramovich – while attempting to delve into the psychology of current global enemy number one Vladimir Putin.

While the urgent real-life drama of Russian oligarchs and Tory party donations rumbles on in the news, Peter Morgan’s play begins in 1991 and then explores the post-Soviet, post-perestroika era, when modern Russian oligarchy was born as businessmen scrambled to make their billions and assume the power of politicians.

Patriots circles around a group of high-profile dissidents, some now dead. Chief among them here is Boris Berezovsky, a talented mathematician turned businessman, and friend turned foe to Vladimir Putin.

Rupert Goold’s production is ultimately entertaining but choppy, taking time to settle before its power struggles gain intensity. It begins in unruly, hyperactive vein, with Berezovsky at the height of his powers. There are flashes of the men he protects or helps usher into power: Putin, an earnest deputy mayor of St Petersburg who calls on him for help to get into the Kremlin; a fresh-faced Roman Abramovich, who looks at Berezovsky with stars in his eyes; and Alexander Litvinenko, then a security officer who Berezovsky enlists on his payroll.

Miriam Buether’s set turns from blingy bar with a seedy Stringfellows vibe – strip lighting and fringed chandeliers – into TV studios and Kremlin offices with surprise cubicles and suddenly spotlit corners with pianos.

Tom Hollander’s Berezovsky appears like a wealthy accountant but veers into bursts of antic prancing or bug-eyed fits of rage. Neither manifestation feels entirely convincing at first but as he becomes more broken, he emerges as a truly tragic figure, almost Shakespearean in his deposed, exiled state. “I created you,” he reminds Putin with furious indignation, sounding like Dr Frankenstein addressing his monster.

Luke Thallon makes an uncanny Abramovich, his shyness and boyish charm wavering uncertainly between contrivance and innocence, while Jamael Westman’s Litvinenko is the only likable character.

The show-stealing performance is Will Keen’s saturnine Putin who emerges as the greatest and most sinister force on stage. His is more than just an imitative performance and even when he grows more megalomaniacal, Keen avoids caricature and keeps his character’s self-righteous desire for Russian imperialism convincingly real, and chilling.

Patriots looks to the past and traces a line not only around Berezovsky’s rise, fall and final years of exile in Berkshire, but Putin’s transformation from politician to autocrat. There is no mention of Ukraine, but in his final incarnation there are all the signs of the warmongering expansionist, surveying the land and wanting to restore Russia to its past glory.

The thesis is that both Berezovsky and Putin were genuine patriots of sorts: Hollander’s Berezovsky sincerely believes he had the rare intellectual gifts and vision required to steer the country from the Soviet dark age into a modern, global future; Keen’s Putin wanted to cut down on corruption and make the oligarchs who’d carved up his lawless country follow the rules again.

And both lose sight of their objectives: Berezovsky because of his overweening ego; Putin… well, because of his overweening ego, albeit very differently expressed, a stiff inability to forgive or forget any form of ‘improper’ behaviour, which for him starts with total respect for the President.

It’s an interesting, informative play, with three great performances. For all Rupert Goold’s typically zingy direction - there’s Russian song, Russian booze, and even a Russia consultant, Yuri Goligorsky - it never particularly feels like a story about another country.

Patriots is a play in two registers. There are the witty lines, the erudite speeches and the moral conundrums that we’ve come to expect from Morgan’s work. The other register, though, is one that’s weighed down by research and exposition. The verbiage comes fast: there’s talk of hyperinflation and Perestroika and kryshas.

But what you want to see is Hollander. He plays Berezovsky as a man who knows he’s always the cleverest person in the room, and therefore all the more pained by his outmanoeuvring. It’s never quite clear if he has been motivated by principles or self-interest. That’s the beauty of Hollander’s performance: it gives us so much but ultimately remains unknowable.

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