Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has elevated Vladimir Putin from the status of a mid-level regional autocrat to the pantheon of all-time villains. Along with him, those who contributed to his personal evolution become eligible for rigorous historical scrutiny. Add to this the undeniable blunder by the collective west of not taking Putin seriously for too long, and it makes the lonely voice who would be able to say, “I told you so” – had he been alive today – as worthy a protagonist for a great drama as can be.
Enter Boris Berezovsky, a maths prodigy turned corrupt oligarch who mentors and steers an unassuming Putin to the presidency of Russia, only to flee for his life to London once his creature starts asserting totalitarian controls. The argument between the oligarch and the dictator about their conflicting views of what’s good for Russia is core to the new play by Peter Morgan at the Almeida theatre – hence the title, Patriots. Watching Putin saving Russia from Boris, and Boris saving her from Putin, a western viewer might see it as a no-brainer: of course, it should be a government by the people, for the people. But in Russia, this would not work; the people have no voice, the only choice being the new robber barons versus an autocrat, proclaims Boris – and refers the spectators to the precedent of Magna Carta.
As someone close to Boris for nearly two decades, I can testify that the portrayal of him by Tom Hollander is accurate and brilliant – from his distinctive baldness to the rapid manner of speech to the amalgamation of rhapsodic idealism with cynical pragmatism in his mode of action. His transition from the all-powerful kingmaker in the Kremlin to the broke and humiliated has-been in London is depicted as convincingly as it is faithful to the facts. The passionate duality of his character, the trilling controversy of his rise and fall reminded me of the prophetic characterisation of Boris I heard from George Soros: the Great Gatsby of Moscow.
Similarly flawless is Putin in the chilling rendition by Will Keen. His metamorphosis from a humble and obedient civil servant into a steely authoritarian the moment he realises he no longer has to answer to anyone is instantaneously reflected in his stiffened gait and demeanour – a body language of l’état, c’est moi. Those of us who, like Boris, watched from the relative safety of London Putin how transformed the freewheeling Weimar Russia of Yeltsin into a police state still cannot fathom how an army of western policymakers could miss those early signals.
The two supporting characters contributing to Putin’s triumph and Boris’s downfall are the benign Roman “the kid” Abramovich (played by Luke Thallon) and the stately English judge Elizabeth Gloster (Aoife Hinds). Their actions would have seemed perfectly reasonable within the confines of the plot if not for the latter-day events in the real world, which the audience cannot help but match against what they see on stage. Although morally questionable, Roman’s commonsensical decision to switch loyalties and go with Putin against his former benefactor makes perfect business sense, especially after he gets the judge’s endorsement in Berezovsky v Abramovich. Had it not been for the kid’s billions being now in jeopardy due to the sanctions imposed by the awakened west in punishment for his closeness to Putin. Likewise, Gloster’s wilful blindness to Abramovich being a surrogate of Putin with Putin now threatening to wipe out London with a nuclear strike would seem an ill-considered finding in retrospect. With all due respect.
The one character whose scenic rendition is more romantic than the rest is Alexander “Sasha” Litvinenko, Boris’s “good knight without fear and reproach”, an honest cop, whose unequivocally moral choice of Boris over Putin stands in contrast to the practical option-taking by Roman. This earns Sasha a dose of radioactive poison and an almost saintly position in the cast of characters for he is brought back to the stage after death as a perfectly Shakespearean ghost who appears to Boris as he prepares to hang himself.
Sasha’s ghost tells Boris that “in heaven, there are Russian dissidents that get to their feet when I walk into the room” and bestows the rank of a true patriot on his despondent boss before saying goodbye. As far as I am concerned, that puts the whole story into a proper perspective.
July 15, 2022 at 04:39PM Alex Goldfarb