Life & Culture

Patriots theatre review: The career of an oligarch… and his powerful friend

Playwright Peter Morgan applies his fly-on-the-wall attention to Boris Berezovsky’s dramatic trajectory in a tale set against the fall and rise of Russia


Almeida Theatre | ★★★✩✩

The pedigree of this new political play is as impeccable, as is its timing. The fascinating setting is post-Soviet Russia; the author is none other than The Crown’s creator Peter Morgan; it’s directed by the Almeida’s Rupert Goold (whose name used to often have the sobriquet Golden Boy attached to it in his younger days) an it boasts screen and stage star Tom Hollander as Boris Berezovsky the oligarch.

Actually the Jewish oligarch, as the play is at pains to point out.

Morgan’s objective here is similar to what he achieved in his other works about real-world elites: to be a fly on the wall during private events where mere mortals would be lucky if they had their nose pressed to the glass.

He did it with the Queen (in the play of the same name); he did it with David Frost and Richard Nixon (ditto); and he did it with Brown and Blair’s Labour Party in The Deal.

Here the focus is on Berezovsky’s rise and fall, a tale set against the fall and rise of Russia. We see him first as a boy maths prodigy, whose talent is subsumed by the opportunity for enrichment he sees in post-Communist Russia.

By the time he’s squandered his talent for maths in favour of a scam selling cars, he owes much of his newfound wealth to the underperforming deputy mayor of St Petersburg.

We see that this unimpressive, little-known and later unemployed politician has at least the virtue to refuse Berezovsky’s bribe. But as time moves on, the increasingly well-connected Berezovsky repays the favour with a job in the Kremlin, after which the politician’s name — Vladimir Putin (Will Keen) — becomes much better known.

The drama in Morgan’s play is mined from the arrogance of Berezovsky, who assumes that the man he helped to the job of Russian president would always be in his pocket. It didn’t work out that way.

Yet while the evening is compelling, this isn’t always for the best reasons. As Berezovsky’s life unravels and Putin’s grip on the country becomes ever tighter, the impression forms of Morgan searching for the dramatic kernel that centres his play. Because it turns out that Berezovsky’s demise just isn’t enough.

The thrill here is not so much the drama generated by the play but that of getting close to the events and decision takers that have led to today’s world.

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