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FringeReview UK 2022

Low Down

Writer Peter Morgan, Director Rupert Goold, Set Designer Miriam Buether, Co-Costume Designers Deborah Andrews and Miriam Buether, Lighting Designer Jack Knowles, Sound Designer and Composer Adam Cork, Movement Director Polly Bennett, Casting Director Robert Sterne CDG, Voice Coach Joel Trill, Assistant Director Sophie Drake, Russia Consultant Yuri Goligorsky.

Additional Reorded Voices
Sasha Alexis
Ivan Ivashkin
Lev Levermore
Oleg Sidorchik

Concept and artwork by Émilie Chen. Figure photographed by Ian Hippolyte.

Till August 20th


Horribly timely. Looking at Russia in the 1990s is staring at a mirror that cracks. Triumphalist gangster kryshas (protection, literally roof), the rich kleptocratic, investing in Londongrad, the poor poorer. Wonder where they got it from? More crisis capitalism, more starvation: it’s a history lesson bleeding into double geography. Let’s not even think it stops with Putin or Russia.

What happens in Peter Morgan’s Patriots affects us more and more. With the twilight of Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, Yelstin’s sozzled Russian dawn suited no-one but the West.  Few winners and nearly all losers, but even then as Morgan observes,  today’s patriot gets twisted into tomorrow’s traitor.

Tom Hollander’s Boris Berezovsky is an equivocal patriot. Part Milo Minderbinder, part Robert Maxwell, part something inherently nobler than either: the Nobel prize-winner he might have been, says tutor Ronald Guttman’s Professor Perelman. Well, Field medal anyway, since (for no reason) they don’t give Nobels for Maths. Throghout, Gutman’s sanguine, self-sufficient character prods Hollander’s back to his true self, and when he finally accepts that’s his fate, fate skews another way.

Berezovsky’s rise from six-year-old mathematics prodigy is facilitated by plenty of infinity and decision-making theory, courtesy of Perelman. The most rapt moments are indeed silent, when they converse in mathematical formulae. Morgan’s way in looks at his subject as the subject uses Russia as a vast maths table. With people as experiment. Miriam Buether’s cruciform set , red-lit in verticals and spot-whites by that master or spectral lumiere, Jack Knowles, serves as catwalk for supplicants, president’s office, oligarch’s dining table. Being Buether’s there’s a strip-light rectangle as behind a screen downstage left above us, the stricken sub Kursk’s captain (anguished Matt Concannon in several such roles) pleads for help in the tragedy that turns Berezovsky from patriot to traitor in Will Keen’s Putin’s gimlet eyes.

It’s a masterclass from both. Where Hollander bursts in fully-formed in 1995, closing five deals at once, including putting off his daughter, Keen develops. Berezovsky’s promoting a nobody oligarchs can dictate to, an order-loving sober anti-gangster. At first softly-spoken, a deputy mayor forced to be a taxi-driver, you see why even Putin’s old KGB comrades described him as cold. As East German KGB he was ‘soft’. Keen’s performance takes him from mildly disappointed supplicant to man unhappy with his sudden rise to FSB head of intelligence, when he wants politics

His moment comes as Sean Kingsley’s Cecil-lite Chief of Staff Voloshin loyally reminds him he doesn’t need to wait for oligarchs’ diaries: ‘You’re the president now’. ‘So I am’ Keen admits alone, staring into the upstage mirror:  and Keen’s zero Celsius transformation’s complete. So much so, even fixer Kingsley’s later surprised.

The other puppet ‘kid’ or kiddo’ Berezovsky’s ‘number one fan’ Roman Abramovich should at least be easier. Luke Thallon’s eager, preppy soft-spoken wannabe eventually tackles Berezovsky on transparency, and his savage -put-down’s memorable. He’s reminded he came to his idol with ‘a pipe dream – ‘literally a dream about a pipe’ – who’d worked out how to milk Russia’s sprawling but incredibly rich state energy sector. When, exiled but granted asylum by Blair but defeated in British courts over his claims on Abramovich, you see a mortal collapse is on-stream. Hollander bestrides like a colossus crucified.

Berezovsky’s real number one fan is incorruptible but thus vulnerable Alexander Litvinenko, the slightly underused Jamael Westman (from Hamilton), laconic and Scottish – the go-to accent of someone from the provinces in so many productions of Russian drama; there’s a spray of accents in Patriots too. His laconic, wiry steadfastness is counterpointed by Yolanda Kettle in her main tole (bar Berezovsky’s ex) as Marina Litvinenko urging Sasha to take what’s offered. As the couple’s tragedy culminates, she’s one of the few voices to warn their friend. After all Litvinenko is (he’s disappointed to read out) only No. 14 on the hit list just as Berezovsky rejoices at being, yet again numero uno.

But Morgan uses Litvinenko once more after his murder in the final scene, one of the best, as Westman and Hollander square up to legacy and once last throw.

Paul Kynman takes on avuncular personas such as Yeltsin, sozzled again, and FSB Boss and Bodyguard, a seedier register of corruption than Kingsley’s roles. There’s a frightened Newscaster and Home Office official, most of all loyal Daniel Kahneman from Stephen Fewell, anxious Tatiana Yeltsin, Katya and British judge Aoife Hinds; Jessica Temple is even more relegated to passivity. As Berezovsky’s mother, a terrified Newscaster, and even more secretary.  The three women are consistently chorus roles in a world of nine male actors, echoing just how psychotically Alpha male this toxicity is.

Director Rupert Goold paces this two-hours-forty-five drama as a lean uncluttered political chiller, echoed by Buether’s set and her
co-costume designs with  Deborah Andrews, uniformly dark, never blazing.  Adam Cork ‘s sound and composition accesses Vladimir Vysotsky’s popular music, as if trying to fix the soul of Russianness and sentimental patriotism in a soundtrack Morgan suggests. It neatly cuts across the grimness elsewhere, opens up the sudden wild busts of carousing Polly Bennett’s Movement direction makes brief use of.

It’s a consummate production, slightly trimming the play that seems huger than its 90 pages, begging questions.

For one, I’m not sure Berezovsky created Putin. ‘You were your own man long before I ever met you’ he concedes. He cast him there. But the conditions that created Putin could be unscrewed in a series of Russian Putin dolls, reducing in size as we go back in time. In the smallest, a mirror for any western leader or plutocrat to stare into. He’s our monster too. A must-see.