Royalty to Russian oligarchs: Peter Morgan’s ‘Patriots’ play hits the stage
Plus, a rundown of the books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency
Monday 11 July 2022 By Matt d’Ancona
For almost two decades, Peter Morgan has enjoyed the status of semi-official cultural laureate, surveying the state of Britain with the gimlet eye of the master dramatist and storyteller, and exploring the national soul on stage, television and the big screen.
Now he has turned his attention to another nation and another, quite different cast of characters in Patriots (Almeida Theatre, booking until 20 August), starring Tom Hollander as the late Russian oligarch, Boris Berezovsky. Directed by Rupert Goold, the play explores the relationships between the mathematical prodigy turned businessman-baron and three other men: the FSB operative, Alexander Litvinenko; the rising entrepreneur Roman Abramovich; and the deputy mayor of St Petersburg – an ambitious ex-KGB officer called Vladimir Putin.
In different ways, Berezovsky takes all three under his wing; acting as their krysha, or protector, in the kleptocratic bandit country of Boris Yeltsin’s post-Cold War Russia. Abramovich represents new money; Litvinenko, security; and Putin, the sort of politician whom Berezovsky believes he can control. Still entranced by the mathematical notion of the ‘infinite’, he sees in post-Soviet Russia a glorious future in which a handful of spectacularly wealthy plutocrats will steer the new democracy towards prosperity, power and freedom – at least in the very particular hyper-capitalist sense that Berezovsky himself relishes.
As he declares early in the play, his own vision of democracy is ‘the kind… created eight hundred years ago in Britain when a group of wealthy noblemen came up with the idea of Magna Carta while… holding the monarch by the balls. We are the instigators of the Russian Magna Carta.’
Yet Berezovsky is thwarted by a form of miscalculation: a near-total inability to read the true character of those around him, and an absence of emotional intelligence that leads him to underestimate the cunning of both Abramovich and (fatally) Putin himself, with the latter never playing his notional patron’s game. According to Putin’s former wife, Lyudmila, he had long regarded Berezovsky as ‘Enemy Number One’, and, in the winter of 1998, when still head of the FSB, told Markus Lyra, the Finnish Ambassador: ‘He’s the worst criminal you can think of. He’s going to damage Russia and he will damage your country, too.’
Once Berezovsky used his media power to embarrass the president over the Kursk submarine disaster in August 2000, the break was complete. As Short writes: ‘Berezovsky, Putin decided, was not just an enemy but a traitor.’
Morgan’s play is about competing varieties of 21st-century nationalism. For Putin, the oligarchs were not the saviours of the motherland but useful tools in the creation of an authoritarian state that could bring order and, potentially, restore Greater Russia to its territorial might.
It is also a broader study of the worldwide battle between authoritarianism and democracy – and the ambiguous, often hubristic role played by big business in the struggle between the two. What Putin saw 15 years before Donald Trump was that the door was ajar to strongman leadership – and that he could catch the plutocrats off guard by simply kicking it down.
Litvinenko, of course, was poisoned in London by tea laced with radioactive polonium and died on 23 November 2006; Abramovich has lost control of Chelsea FC and is struggling to avoid the grip of sanctions by presenting himself as a prospective peacemaker in the Ukraine conflict; and Putin sits in the Kremlin, pursuing victory of some sort at any cost, deranged in his confidence that he can somehow sweeten the savage verdict of history.
As for Berezovsky, he was found dead on the bathroom floor of his Berkshire mansion, a black cashmere scarf round his neck, on 23 March 2013. I would not dream of spoiling Morgan’s depiction of how he met his end.
Patriots is much more than a gripping account of Russia’s recent past, and by no means an opportunity for Western theatre-goers to gloat. At previews, Berezovsky’s claim that London is a city ‘[w]here officials cannot be corrupted. Where the rule of the law prevails’ has prompted snorts of derision from the audience.
As ever, Morgan compels us to face unpalatable truths about ourselves in the stories he chooses to tell. Do not miss his latest insight into our dangerous, capricious era. Here are this week’s recommendations.
Black Bird (Apple TV+)
This fine drama series is especially poignant as it features the final performance for television by Ray Liotta, who recently died aged 67 while working on a movie in the Dominican Republic. Playing an ex-cop, broken by his own history of corruption and then a stroke, Liotta excels in his exchanges with his son Jimmy (Taron Egerton, also terrific), a convicted drug dealer who has struck a dangerous deal with the FBI. To secure an expedited release, Jimmy must transfer to a unit for the criminally insane and coax a confession from suspected serial killer, Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser). Bristling with often unbearable tension, this is prestige television of the highest quality.
The Wrath To Come: Gone With The Wind And The Lies America Tells by Sarah Churchwell
It is a measure of the profound cultural and social controversies embedded in Gone With The Wind (1939) that, after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, HBO Max temporarily removed the movie from its streaming service. In The Wrath To Come, Sarah Churchwell suggests persuasively that the film and Margaret Mitchell’s original book are ‘the skeleton key’ that unlocks ‘America’s illusions about itself.’ Victor Fleming’s blockbuster film secured a place in mid-century mainstream American culture for the pernicious myth that the South had been the victim of northern invasion, that slavery was a benign arrangement and that the ‘Lost Cause’ embodied by Scarlett O’Hara and Tara was the nation’s true tragedy. Churchwell is especially good at connecting the delusions of the antebellum world to the 21st-century nativism that underpins Trumpism and its new variants to this day, and lurked beneath the bloody invasion of the US Capitol on 6 January, 2021. Rich in detail and rigorously argued, this is cultural history at its very best.
Last Night In The Bittersweet by Paolo Nutini
It has, I will admit, taken me a long time to embrace the music of Paolo Nutini, who struck me at first as just a little too close to James Blunt for comfort. But now I’m a true believer, thanks to this excellent fourth album from the Paisley-born singer-songwriter. From its opening moments – sampling Patricia Arquette’s line ‘You’re so cool’ from the Tarantino-scripted True Romance (1993) – Last Night In The Bittersweet is a compelling sonic experience, and one that shows how much Nutini has matured and explored his musical options since Caustic Love eight years ago. Aged 35, Nutini is an artist who is only getting started. Tour dates can be found here.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the rest of the week and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner