Patriots, Almeida, stage review: ‘A must-see for anyone worried about Europe’s future’

‘Exquisite’: Tom Hollander in Patriots. Photograph: Marc Brenner

“Russia has spent so long as an empire she doesn’t know herself as a country.”

A dire warning for our current European political woes, and a one-sentence synopsis of Peter Morgan’s newest masterpiece, Patriots.

The well-heeled collection of the “glittering British elite” (the play’s words) shuffle in their seats, a fitting audience for a story of rampant capitalism.

Like much in our over-saturated colour-TV sphere, we are directed towards what the media wants us to focus on.

Snippets and snatches of the full story glide at us in a desperate attempt to elicit a response. I understand that I am in a small way part of this circus, but a very minor juggler.

Understanding Vladimir Putin’s recent imperialism takes a good grasp of Russia’s history, a time-consuming task indeed. Or one could simply watch Morgan’s expertly stitched drama at the Almeida? Your choice.

Unsurprisingly, from the writer of Netflix’s The Crown, this piece is a tour de force for all involved, which is a nice thing to be able to say, isn’t it?

Morgan’s writing is funny, laden with metaphor, and makes the historically murky clearer, at least within its theatrical context.

Director Rupert Goold’s affinity for making the medium-sized space seem limitless is impressive. How does he do this? Well, by heavily limiting the space, ironically.

Miriam Buether’s set is a large, red bar crossed with a stage, surrounded by 90s stools and blood-colour underlighting. Part strip club, part court room. There is a black simple staircase stage left, and a box floating stage right that serves as a television studio come submarine. That’s it.

Inside, the political battles go back and forth, desks glide into centre stage, and two large swinging doors reveal a full-length reflective surface behind them – a prop that proves important for a certain disgraced leader’s self-creation. They do it with mirrors indeed.

The rest is Jack Knowles’s pointed, transformative lights, live singing, and sheer acting ability. We traverse from most northerly Chukotka to drizzling London, from on top of a mountain to the bottom of the sea, in an instant with very little fuss or flourish. This piece’s cogs are well greased with the oil of the Ural Mountains.

Luke Thallon and Will Keen as Abramovich and Putin. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Boris Berezovsky was a businessman, emerging to power in the chaotic 90s as the Soviet Union dissolved and crashed to its knees. He serves as a Krysha (roof), a Warwick-like kingmaker, political ally, and thorn-in-the-side of both Vladimir Putin and Roman Abramovich.

His rise through the government of Boris Yeltsin and subsequent fall in the government of Putin is shaped exquisitely by Tom Hollander, who gives depth to a deeply unlikeable womaniser, embezzler, and autocrat. Berezovsky is also a mathematical genius and, by his own statement, a devoted patriot. Hollander enchants us, pulling us into the casino capitalism of the period with such charm, colour, and conversational dexterity.

Will Keen as Putin shows the progression from lowly deputy mayor to totalitarian leader in incremental jumps. His posture solidifies, his shoulders broaden, his frame bulks – this is Hulk-level change all by the power of physicality. Likewise, Luke Thallon blossoms from the dorky “kid” Abramovich to a kleptocrat able to destroy his former Krysha in court (no spoilers in political theatre).

The story is pointedly sparse with female characters, reflecting the at times misogynistic history of modern Russian politics.

Aoife Hinds as Tatiana Yeltsin – one of the few to break through into the boy’s club – is engaging. Yolanda Kettle and Jamael Westman as Maria and Alexander Litvinenko provide the only (doomed) love story. Although the choice of northern accents to demarcate class is a little tired, no?

Hollander sits in his spider’s web, a modern Rasputin in the role of a lifetime. Yet he and Keen do have a habit of falling into the play’s only trap.

The text, poignant to the war in Ukraine, self-aware with nodding winks to the audience, becomes overladen with dramatic irony. Berezovsky calls Putin “clearly a decent man” and doesn’t quite live to regret it. Although the writing is more facetious than a story of political corruption should be, the knowing winks become a little soupy, impeding the furious pace kept up throughout.

Russian history has been dominated by a ludicrously small group of people. The 1917 revolution arguably just changed the people, with the 1990 upheaval changing them again. But this play, set fewer than 20 years ago, is not trapped in the dusty annuals of time.

This is a history that is very much affecting the world we live in, ripping it apart, poisoning its tea, unsettling its foundations. What the play does remarkably well, especially one by an English author, is to deconstruct what patriotism means to Russians. A cover for greed, a channel for pride, a feeling, or lastly and most dangerously, something to die for.

Although theatre is not documentary, documentary is not history, and history is not fact, this play is a must-see for anyone worried about Europe’s future.

Although I warn you, it will only make you feel worse.

Patriots runs until 20 August at the Almeida Theatre.

For more information, visit