‘Patriots’ review – A fine Russian oligarch thriller fumbles with familiarity

★★★ 1/2

Patriots is a curious play about a problematic man named Boris who infiltrates the establishment and tries to bend the state’s politics to his will – but no, it’s not about that Boris. Instead, The Night Manager’s Tom Hollander plays Boris Berezovsky, the mathematician and billionaire businessmen who helped Putin rise to power.

The play is, unquestionably, timely. The set design by Miriam Buether, rather fitting. It could easily be interpreted as a large red plus sign, but clearly intended as a reference to England’s flag (the fact the Russian characters have English accents only cements this attempt to transpose the country’s politics onto the West). How unfortunate, then, that such a design was already implemented to great effect in the National’s astonishing Death of England.

Its arguments on patriotism are not too dissimilar from the 2020 play either. In this instance, it appears to makes the case that the concept is nothing more than a political abstraction – to mould, to embody and to interpret as one pleases. It’s an argument which never gets old, and thus isn’t particularly innovative.

As much as Berezovsky insists it isn’t when it is pointed out by Putin (His Dark Materials star Will Keen), his patriotism is predominantly a matter of self-pride, a display of his political capital as a man who can get people in high places – a ‘kingmaker’, as he puts it. Hollander portrays him as hilariously frank and outspoken, wide-eyed with opportunism and one hand always in or near his pocket, as if seeking some reassurance or comfort in money. Equally impressive is Keen as a nasally, snivelling Putin, mostly monotonous but utterly menacing in his chilling composure. The ‘face-off’ as Berezovsky uses his stake in a state broadcaster to humiliate Putin is thrilling.

The credit goes to director Rupert Goold, the Almeida’s artistic director who has helmed previous cinematic hits such as Ink, Albion and Spring Awakening. The scene changes with hovering chandeliers, flashing lights and pulsing dance music adds a rushing, intense tempo. Tonally, the precariousness of Russian politics is there, and it’s embodied in the awkward demeanour of Luke Thallon (of Present Laughter and After Life) and his take on oligarch Roman Abramovich.

Ultimately, it’s the narrative and biographical storytelling which is the most fascinating, as it comes full circle at the end of the production and presents what came before in a new light. The phone calls to Berezovsky from influential Russians in the first act become desperate communications from the businessman to Putin to come home in the second. A plot to elevate becomes a move to destroy. A plea to the West to consider the hidden beauties of Russia in the play’s opening becomes a monologue of despair at his collapsing world. In yet another comparison to what’s come before, Patriots comes to an interval with Putin emerging from backstage and acknowledging his new position of authority – akin to Lucy Prebble’s more metatheatrical take on Russian politics with A Very Expensive Poison.

Patriots is, undoubtedly, a strongly acted spectacle and therefore a well-staged piece of theatre. It crackles with a buzzing energy always on the cusp of bursting, but when it comes to the political commentary – at a time which could not be more impactful for criticism of the warped nature of the Russian dictatorship – the ideas towards which it hints are tired and uninspired. We are aware of the grip business has on political leaders, and the play drawing a comparison between the West and Russia on this feels half-baked. A far more interesting – though fairly minor – point is just how inattentive Britain has been to Russia, when both Alexander Litvinenko (Jamael Westman) and Berezovsky call on the West to be weary of the foreign state.

Yet it does little to transcend the auditorium upon which it is performed to remark on Western politics, which it clearly tries so hard to do in its set design and smaller directorial decisions. The claustrophobia of such a limitation – ironic when Boris opines about the beauty of infinity – is both a blessing and a curse: making for a chilling tale of manipulation, but one which reads too much as déjà vu.

Patriots is now playing at the Almeida Theatre until 20 August.

Captioned, audio described and relaxed performances take place on 28 July, 30 July and 10 August respectively.

Production Images: Marc Brenner.

Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Patriots’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the media. I did not receive payment for this article, and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.

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