What a time to be putting on a play stuffed with Borises. A play that deals with a floundering country and a power struggle at the top. A play about Russia. Peter Morgan, who in The Crown dramatised a family that calls itself the firm, now throws light on firms that call themselves a family. Patriots, conceived before the invasion of Ukraine but no doubt shaded with its consequences, puts on stage the oligarchs who floated Vladimir Putin to power. In doing so it has some frisky nudges at the UK; it also asks fundamental questions about who runs any country: financiers, or politicians.
Morgan’s is a driving drama of clever encapsulation, quick character sketches and dynamic interactions. It brims with information: Boris Berezovsky, the businessman who “used to own the news”, and who, having turned against Putin, ended up hanged in England, is revealed as a maths prodigy, specialising in decision making. Though Patriots covers some of the same ground as Lucy Prebble’s A Very Expensive Poison (2019), it does not attempt Prebble’s surreal sweep; nor is the dialogue complicated by much psychological intricacy. Yet Rupert Goold’s fascinating production emphasises that there are multiple aspects to the power dealing that fuels the evening.
Miriam Buether’s design is lavish and alarming, with golden chandeliers and red strips of fluorescent light: a natural enclosure for the unforgiving action and the rich sentiment with which the evening opens – with Russian song and memories of mushroom picking; there is more than one definition of patriotism here.
At the centre is a triad of terrific performances. This is a triumphant moment for Tom Hollander, who stars as Berezovsky with physical as well as mental force, constantly commandeering men with shoulder slaps and bear-hugs. He emits a charmless bonhomie, like a fiendish rotary club member. Will Keen has form at playing a Russian: he was an excellent Belinsky in Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia 20 years ago. As Putin he is concentrated, full of conviction: he moves as if sheathed, his body still, with only his fingers jiggling; his mouth a line in an unflinching face – he expels his words like pellets. Luke Thallon, a soaring talent, is a marvel of increasing inscrutability as (yes!) Roman Abramovich: he first appears as an uncertain pup, capable but deferential; he gradually hardens, eventually becoming utterly implacable. Patriots is a neat nailing of pivoting power. It will also join Art and The Lehman Trilogy as a challenge for a male acting trio.
Over 20 years ago, Deborah Warner brought angels to the top of Euston Tower. Earlier, in Titus Andronicus, she had given Brian Cox what he has described as his most interesting stage role. Now she takes over as artistic director of the Ustinov theatre in Bath, the shoebox studio with tinderbox potential. She has laid out her agenda with panache. There will be adaptations of novels, staging of poems, and a particular commitment to music theatre; Richard Hetherington of the Royal Opera House is her head of music. With characteristic boldness, Warner says hello with a drama often staged as a goodbye.
I always go to The Tempest hoping to be transported and am invariably frustrated. It has some of the most radiant lines in the English language and, in Ariel and Caliban, creatures such “as dreams are made of”. But, oh … the clods of recapitulated backstory and, ah, the laborious comic episodes. Warner takes on the play’s essential harshness with arresting rather than alluring effects. Prospero’s island is a broken place – as if delivered by Ikea. Jean Kalman’s unsparing lights irradiate Christof Hetzer’s design, in which a cotton-wool cloud hangs over huge wooden planks, propped, waiting to fall. Dickie Beau’s Ariel lip-syncs to Fiona Shaw’s voice while walking with fixed stare, as if on a gymnast’s beam; his release from servitude looks like a mercy killing. Finbar Lynch is an immaculate, unrepentant usurper, who snarls at the idea of reconciliation.
Though Edward Hogg’s Caliban – poo-throwing in bad knickers – is a diminished figure, there is buoyant warmth in Stephen Kennedy’s comic Trinculo and Tanvi Virmani’s Miranda, whose wonder is a force. The play is often claimed to be Shakespeare bidding farewell to the theatre in the figure of Prospero. Although I saw it on the day Boris Johnson relinquished his prime ministerial powers, the farewell that came to mind was another one: Peter Brook had died days before, and Nicholas Woodeson’s Prospero – confrontational, determined, capable of grabbing an opponent by the throat, and his daughter by the heart – seemed to echo Brook’s candour.
The Tempest, with its jagged fragments circling around a tale of paternal loss and rage, is closer than anything else in Shakespeare to King Lear, whose title role is arrestingly embodied by Kathryn Hunter in Helena Kaut-Howson’s Globe production. In 1997, Hunter was the first British woman to play the part professionally. She appears now not so much bonkers as broken with sorrow, and enfeebled by sycophancy: when, in dapper black three-piece and flowing white hair, she plays Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on a tin whistle, the courtiers give her a round of applause. Her crackling voice is lighter, more reedy than usual: no bellowing until she reaches the howls, which she unleashes with an eldritch sound. It is striking how little she seems to rely on her celebrated powers of physical transformation. In fact she suggests them by restraint: there is no “manly” swagger, just crystallised loss.
Equally vital to the production is Michelle Terry, artistic director of the theatre, who, in a traditional doubling, plays both Cordelia and the Fool. She bustles as the silent sister, a soldier in waiting. She is magnetic as the Fool, clown-like – apparently jointless, with whitened face and baggy trousers – but not whimsical. She and Hunter transmit dependent affection: it is as if the Fool is training Lear’s heart for Cordelia. In a beautiful sequence the two walk, mirroring each other’s movements, as if linked by invisible strings. The moment lights up the play.
Star ratings (out of five)
The Tempest ★★★★
King Lear ★★★
Patriots is at the Almeida, London, until 20 August
The Tempest is at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath, until 6 August
King Lear is at Shakespeare’s Globe, London, until 24 July
July 17, 2022 at 03:27PM Susannah Clapp