6 July 2022
Patriots (Almeida Theatre) Review

Written by Peter Morgan, who is no stranger to giving us accounts of historical events, “Patriots” is the story of Boris Berezovsky (a billionaire puppet-master of Russian business and politics) and Vladimir Putin (a little-known deputy chairman of St. Petersburg), with a bit of Roman Abramovich (a youthful upstart running a toy company) thrown in for good measure, spanning from 1991 to 2013.  The play is a meticulous chronology of who said and did what to whom and when.  We get to see all the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing.  I genuinely think this would make for a fantastic book.

As a play, however, it’s too fact-focused.  We are told of every little development in meticulous detail (often by characters themselves), which means there is very little room for unspoken development.  I kept wanting for more aspects to be shown rather than carefully diced up and presented, and I’m not sure if this gripe is about writing or direction.

At 5’5″, Tom Hollander cuts an imposing figure far beyond his stature.  Other than a bald cap, he doesn’t carry extra heft or height to make him look more like Berezovsky, but his moral superiority over everyone else on stage is unmistakable.  As Berezovsky goes through his highs and lows, it’s difficult to feel any emotions for him because we are not shown how he feels about anything.  We are told he was good at math as a child, we are told he wanted to do research in decision making, we are told he thought his own Nobel Prize was lost to Kahneman and Tversky’s research after he gave up mathematics, we are told he missed Russia in exile, we are told, we are told, we are told.  Hollander is a phenomenal actor (I saw him in “Travesties” in the West End a few years back, but can’t find my review), and it seems like, on the one hand, the story needed his skill to be interesting, but, on the other hand, his talents are entirely underused because he has no room to stretch.

Will Keen is one scary Putin.  He is a personification of a small man who’s been shafted just long enough to bear a grudge and is just waiting for an opportunity to lash out.  He actually ended up looking like his counterpart so much, I had to look up what he looks like in real life.  No resemblance, so well done make-up department!  Luke Thallon as Abramovich is too nice, too clean-cut, and too wishy-washy.  I’ve seen him in several productions now and wonder if he’s being typecast a little.

On balance, I though Rupert Goold got the best out of the actors.  There are a few places where I couldn’t work out the rationale for things (e.g., when the person playing the judge swaps over to another role, which is also done by almost everyone in the cast, there is this slow and ceremonial removal of the wig for no apparent reason), but the play has a good flow, and the time flies by.  Where news are read out, there is a cast member, as a reporter, reading them in English, but the corresponding text in Russian is broadcast alongside at low volume.  This makes it very difficult to understand the English text and harks back to the production being focused too much on the facts.  It’s like if we are not given the Russian text, we may doubt that this really happened.  It may well be the case, but it detracts from experience.

The recurring soundtrack to the production is the music of Vladimir Vysotsky, a much revered Russian bard (and later actor) who died in the early 80s.  We can hear the recordings of him singing, and we have Hollander singing along with English translation of the lyrics.  From what I understand, Vysotsky is pretty sacred to anyone and everyone of the former USSR, and bringing him into any equation should be done with great care.  Toward the end of the play, Berezovksy (well, Hollander) is drunk.  He sings a Vysotsky song (where we hear both the Russian and the English simultaneously) and then dances a little drunken jig to it.  I’m quite curious to see whether my Russian friends who’re due to see this production later in the run will consider it in poor taste.  I would’ve thought so…  Interestingly, according to the cast/creatives info, the production also has a “Russia Consultant”, so who knows.

There are certain things that work very well linguistically.  For example, when Thallon is talking to Hollander about wanting to unify different parts of his oil production company, Hollander’s response is along the lines of Thallon having “a pipe dream, which, in this case, is literally a dream about a pipe”.  That’s genuinely funny.  Other things work less well.  For example, the text struggles to explain the imperceptible concept of “krisha”, which is having someone high[er] up in the food chain to give you and/or your business the necessary coverage and protection.  It’s boiled down to a “roof”, but then “krisha” and “roof” are used interchangeably throughout the show, which is unnecessary.

The set by Miriam Buether doubled as an office and a bar (you’ll know what I mean when you see it).  It was creative and provided excellent sightlines for all seats.

Despite some shortcomings, the evening is a masterclass from Tom Hollander.  You can’t take your eyes off him beginning to end.

Cheapskate enjoyment value: £10.

Bonus: We were sat just behind and slightly to the side of Rupert Goold, who would occasionally pop into the view depending on which bit of the stage we were looking at.  He kept silently mouthing almost every word for the whole show.  I thought it was downright adorable (and quite impressive, as the man clearly memorised the whole script beginning to end).  Made it a rather special and unique experience.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Maria

    Very interesting and I tend to agree.

    It is just closer to my heart, I am closer to the context, so was kind of fun for me to realize how factually close to reality it is written. Your comment re book: there are at least 3 books on the topic, I think the play was already largely based on them. I did enjoy the play, as much as one can enjoy the dark subject of the country slipping into abyss…

    Re music: there were 5 of us (accidentally) Russian ladies of my age, we discussed that for us Vysotsky is not an icon, same as pelmeni or shapka-ushanka, these are more references of those born in 40-60s. But the initial sentence is the quote, my guess from Dovlatov. I didn’t find usage of Vysotsky vulgar, was ok to me, those 40-60s guys really were listening to him in every life situation.

    Read reviews from Guardian and FT. Both were saying the play is missing the most interesting part of how the situation unfolded now with the war. That’s probably unjust. Now we know the end result, but the play is exactly about the path to awful result, not about the result.

    1. Moggie

      Oh cool, that’s really fab to know. I wasn’t sure if the initial bit was written for the play or taken from somewhere. Wonder if they should’ve prefaced it with, “as so and so said…”

      Re: music, good point, maybe it’s generational worship?

      Re: books, maybe that’s why the tonality is what it is then. He based it on books, so it flows like a book?

      A couple of reviews also said Hollander didn’t give Berezovsky this or that. I thought he was stellar.

      1. Maria

        Yes, both him and Putin were so real. At times was afraid it is the real Putin on stage! And there was no mockery (like in 47th).

Leave a Reply