Review: Patriots


by Mike Matthaiakis

“Patriots,” penned by Peter Morgan, stands out as a rare gem—a play of historical and philosophical substance adorned with sparkling, often humorous dialogue. Renowned for works like “The Crown” and “Frost/Nixon,” Morgan turns his attention to the tumultuous demise of Soviet communism and its enduring, nefarious consequences.

Set against the backdrop of the 1990s, as the centralized state crumbled, a capitalist free-for-all emerged, giving rise to oligarchs like the charismatic and bombastic Boris Berezovsky, portrayed with larger-than-life energy by Tom Hollander. Berezovsky, a wheeler-dealer businessman, relishes his unchecked power, ruling through influence over the feeble President Yeltsin.

The play unfolds with a focus on Berezovsky, whose fatal mistake lies in underestimating both Roman Abramovich (Luke Thallon), an up-and-coming businessman, and Vladimir Putin (Will Keen), an awkward provincial politician. As Putin rises to power, Berezovsky, consumed by hubris, believes he can control the politician. A chilling confrontation between the two reveals their conflicting claims to true patriotism, setting the stage for Berezovsky’s spectacular downfall.

Fleeing Russia after a denunciation of Putin’s mishandling of the Kursk disaster, Berezovsky seeks asylum in the UK. The narrative weaves the tragic story of Alexander Litvinenko (Jamael Westman), Berezovsky’s former bodyguard, who becomes a victim of polonium poisoning by Russian agents in London. Berezovsky’s attempt to extract a massive payment from Abramovich through British courts also meets failure.

Morgan, known for exploring grey areas and moral ambiguities, presents a gripping tale of power, influence, and tragic flaws. Rupert Goold’s vibrant and fast-paced direction, coupled with Miriam Buether’s red-tinted sets, Jack Knowles’s lighting, and Adam Cork’s atmospheric sound design, enhances the production’s impact.

The ensemble cast delivers lively support, but the spotlight belongs to Tom Hollander. His portrayal of Boris Berezovsky is a tour de force, showcasing extraordinary power and complexity. Hollander skillfully navigates the nuances of the character, infusing bombast with vulnerability, and balancing monstrous ambition with humor and humanity.

In “Patriots,” Morgan and the talented cast create an unforgettable exploration of ambition, downfall, and the enduring consequences of political power. The play stands as a testament to Morgan’s storytelling prowess and the exceptional performances that bring the narrative to life.

Patriots runs until 20 August 2022 at the Almeida Theatre, London