Who’s afraid of Vladimir Putin? Almost no one, until it’s too late, in Peter Morgan’s play Patriots, which is now on show at the West End’s Noël Coward Theatre. And why should they be? When the future authoritarian – played magnificently by Will Keen – first graces the stage, he’s the awkward, lowly deputy mayor of St Petersburg – a “nobody” – struggling to stand firm against the bulldozing, bribe-wielding oligarch Boris Berezovsky, played by the prolific British actor Tom Hollander (most recently of The White Lotus).
At the outset of the play, in the years immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, it is Berezovsky who holds the power. Hollander’s ambitious, politically connected billionaire is a charismatic (though crass) showboat, intent on liberalising Russia’s economy and further enriching himself in the process. He’s also willing to help out friends who ask nicely: for a bashful Roman Abramovich (Luke Thallon), Berezovsky offers patronage to help the young man’s expanding oil empire; for Putin, who’s desperate to break into politics, Berezovsky plays kingmaker, ensconcing him as prime minister. But all of these favours come at a price: Abramovich must pay him 50 per cent in perpetuity; Putin is expected to remember who made him. It doesn’t come as a great surprise that multiple people want to assassinate him.
Miriam Buether’s staging – a cruciform platform that allows for entrances and exits from all angles – easily morphs from office to newsroom to the Kremlin with the help of clever lighting. This, in conjunction with Rupert Goold’s rapid direction, captures some of the frenetic energy of those early post-Soviet years, as fortunes were made and political power was seized.
Is the pace too manic? Maybe – but it slows in the second act, as it becomes increasingly clear that Putin has no intention of staying under Berezovsky’s thumb. Once there’s a king, what need is there for a kingmaker? Having established the historical context these players are operating in, Morgan – who wrote Frost/Nixon and created The Crown – allows the characters to evolve. We see glimpses of Berezovsky’s softer side in his genuinely affectionate relationships with the FSB-agent-turned-Putin-critic Alexander Litvinenko (Josef Davies) and the latter’s wife Marina (Stefanie Martini), as well as his former maths mentor Grigori Perelman (Ronald Guttman). Conversely, we see an increasingly sinister Putin grow into his power, clamping down on the media and destroying his enemies – including Litvinenko, who is assassinated after he and Berezovsky both flee Russia. Keen wisely doesn’t overplay his Putin; as the drama progresses the president becomes stiller, more controlled and all the more creepy for it.
Yet as menacing as he is, it’s not Putin who dooms Berezovsky; the oligarch does that himself. For all his talk of patriotism and building a better country, it was Berezovsky’s ambition to be a “modern Russian hero” that blinded him to the manoeuvres against him and led to his exile in England, a country that would never understand him. Ultimately, it is Berezovsky who is the nobody. By the end of this absorbing, confronting production – which is, perhaps, slightly too long – it is hard not to feel that Berezovsky’s misfortunes are less compelling than the greater tragedies he helped unleash.
When the play first premiered at north London’s Almeida Theatre in July 2022, the script had presumably been written before the war in Ukraine broke out. Yet it hints at future events: there’s Putin’s hatred of Nato and rejection of the West; his twisting of historical fact; his desire to restore Russia’s glorious empire. But even by the play’s end neither Putin’s allies, such as Abramovich, nor his enemies, like Berezovsky, who begs him for forgiveness imagining it would be possible, suspect how dangerous an authoritarian he will become. Then again, neither did we.
Noël Coward Theatre, London WC2N
Until 19 August 2023
[See also: Vladimir Putin under pressure]