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Patriots, Noël Coward Theatre review - crash-bang brilliant Putin comedy does it again | reviews, news & interviews

Patriots, Noël Coward Theatre review - crash-bang brilliant Putin comedy does it again

Patriots, Noël Coward Theatre review - crash-bang brilliant Putin comedy does it again

Peter Morgan's zingy comedy-melodrama about Putin hits even more painful spots now

Putin's puppeteer: Tom Hollander as oligarch and kingmaker Boris BerezovskyAll images Marc Brenner

With apocalyptic floods pouring through the Kakhovka dam, and millions of Ukrainians displaced or bereaved, it doesn’t feel decent to be laughing at a witty black comedy about his rise from nonentity to full-blown tyrant. On the other hand, how can you not laugh when an oligarch injured in an assassination attempt sees it as a great way to get noticed in a crazed post-Soviet Kremlin?

A year ago, premiering in the first months of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Peter Morgan’s crackling drama about Russia’s rich and powerful felt bang on topic. Now, watching the monstrous oligarch Boris Berezovsky clawing for stability as his grey little ex-KGB mentee appoints himself Vlad the Terrible, your laughter chokes as it rises, and Miriam Buether’s set suddenly looks horribly medieval, a brick dungeon dripping with blood-red light, masquerading as a rich man’s chic modern lounge. 

Unlike Armando Ianucci’s caricaturish The Death of Stalin, Morgan’s attempt to discover what makes Putin tick seems genuine, and of course he and director Rupert Goold have great form in probing people of power, the royals, business and political leadership. But the Putin study is cloaked under a fabulously entertaining portrayal of Berezovsky, the self-proclaimed saviour of modern Russia who bankrolled Yeltsin’s presidency and then dug the broke Putin out of a back office in St Petersburg, to his, and others’, regret. 

Berezovsky was a Robert Maxwellian monster, a brazen, loud-mouthed, immensely ambitious character who proclaimed a belief in money as the only route to purification of a country that had died from statism. He profited quickly from the collapse of the USSR into the free-market Yeltsin vortex, buying the country’s chief TV station and helping the young Roman Abramovich acquire the Sibneft oil corporation, among other, ahem, gentlemen’s agreements. 

Will Keen as Vladimir Putin in Patriots

The convoluted business milieu is simply a flash-bang environment for a zinging, brutal duel for power between the exhibitionist, hubristic Berezovsky and the sly, intense Putin, each mesmerisingly played by Tom Hollander and Will Keen. Hollander, whose capacity for low-light villainy was uncovered in the le Carré TV thriller The Night Manager, is quite the opposite here, larger-than-life, verbosely funny and brutally arrogant, in his own mind not just Russia's kingmaker but archangel of a new freewheeling superstate.

But Berezovsky is dead now, by suspected suicide 10 years ago in Sunninghill, after Putin stripped him of everything that mattered to him. And now it’s Putin whom we watch more keenly, and Keen (pictured above) is remarkable, not only physically amazingly similar but with an introverted savagery that won him an Olivier in last year's Almeida run. His tiny changes of posture and expression chart Putin's (still rather mysterious) ascent from downtrodden to impassive to glacially triumphant.

The characters – one hot, one freezing – set up an entirely specious debate whether oligarchs who seized Russia’s riches in order to “free the country that we love” are more patriotic than those who would get shot of them and return a broken Russia to total state control. Of course Patriots is really all about whether Morgan’s got it right about Putin, whether he helps us forecast how far Vlad will go in Ukraine – or the more piquant thought, whether Morgan’s suggesting a similar fall ahead for Putin himself.

Josef Davies and Stefanie Martini as Alexander and Marina Litvinenko in PatriotsThe necessary history lessons are expertly packaged. It's funny to see Roman Abramovich as a “kid”, Luke Thallon being the cleanest college boy ever, sheepishly arguing whether Berezovsky’s protection of Sibneft is worth $300,000 or maybe $1.2million to him. It’s jolting to be reminded that Alexander Litvinenko was Berezovsky’s security guard, and to find yourself chuckling when he says he’s just popping out for tea. (Pictured left, Stefanie Martini and Josef Davies as Marina and Alexander Litvinenko.)

Goold’s rapid-fire direction recalls his Enron in the scene switches and character doublings, who include an extraordinary Yeltsin lookalike in Paul Kynman. I particularly loved the moment the female judge who sternly rejects Berezovsky’s billion-dollar case against Abramovich (Evelyn Miller) rips off her wig and gown to become a bar hostess handing the dejected Boris a bottle of vodka. A slightly laboured sideplot about the child Berezovsky’s Nobel-worthy mathematical mind at least brings us the mellow, gently fatalistic old Professor Perelman of Ronald Guttman. 

Did Berezovsky really beg Putin to allow him to return to an anonymous life as a mathematician in Russia? Did Putin really rip up his own immediate vitriolic response saying no – and just let him dangle in unanswered suspense? Berezovsky’s hanging was left unexplained – Morgan invents a inspired bit of business to ensure that questions would always remain about him. But basically we are all dangling in suspense, aren’t we?

@ismeneb

A zinging, brutal duel for power between the exhibitionist, hubristic Berezovsky and the sly, intense Putin, each mesmerisingly played

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Editor Rating: 
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Average: 4 (1 vote)

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