Patriots, a play set in the tumultuous period of Russian politics in the 1990s, takes the audience on a journey through the fall of the Soviet Union and the birth of a new Russia under Boris Yeltsin, followed by its formative years under Vladimir Putin. It is absolutely captivating. Without a single dull moment, it keeps the audience at the edge of their seats throughout.
Patriots delves into the lives of winners and losers, loyalists and traitors, and the ever-changing nature of allegiances in post-Soviet Russia
To fully appreciate the play, a little background knowledge of Russian politics in the 1990s is helpful. The story begins in 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union, and follows the rise of a new generation of oligarchs vying for power and control. The central character, billionaire businessman Boris Berezovsky, shows in the beginning an impressive grasp of how politics and business work in the real world. Tom Hollander delivers an incisive character in Berezovsky, equal parts acerbic and cautious, cocky, self-aggrandising and as with most such characters, delusional about his own importance in the grand scheme he orchestrates for Russia and completely unable to see how he might inadvertently be digging his own grave in the process.
Berezovsky's journey takes him from the president's inner circle to public enemy number one, showcasing the volatile nature of Russian politics during this period
It is unclear that the grandiose patriotism that he claims drives his character is merely performative, or he himself believes in his slated “responsibility, nay, the duty”, thrust upon him and other businessmen ought to become the custodians of Russia for the greater good.
Boris Berezovsky's story is a tragedy of a man with the mind, talent, and initiative to achieve great things but ultimately brings disaster upon himself through his own errors. The audience witnesses his fall from grace as he loses his position in the president's inner circle and the bee was reminded of the character Gail Wynand from Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, whose character she builds up like a pig for slaughter — he is taken to the absolute epitome of success and influence before Rand ruthlessly crushes his character to the ground.
The casting in Patriots is exceptional, with each actor bearing a striking resemblance to the character they portray
The character of Vladimir Putin, in particular, is developed beautifully. The actor's transformation from a small-town deputy mayor to the confident and ruthless autocrat we know today is nothing short of remarkable, because actor Will Keen not only exhibits a slow but conspicuous transformation in his voice and stage presence through his ascendancy, but even takes care of subtle body language, such as a trembling left hand in the beginning that firms up over time, to add depth and nuance to the portrayal of Putin's rise to power.
One scene in particular involves Putin staring out into the vast, expansive (and I imagine spectacularly beautiful) Russian wilderness in a remote corner of the country, and I could not help but wonder how the remarkable beauty and splendour of this country is so important for the unrelenting nationalism and patriotism Russians exhibit, and how the vastness of the land finds a parallel in the loftiness and incredible moral depth of the thoughts, ideas and philosophies of Russian writers. (PS: the bee is a big fan of Russian classic literature).
Overall, Patriots is a captivating and thought-provoking play that offers a unique insight into the complex world of Russian politics in the 1990s. The superb casting and character development, particularly of Vladimir Putin, make for an engaging and memorable theatrical experience. The story of Boris Berezovsky serves as a cautionary tale of ambition, power, and the consequences of one's own actions. Patriots is a must-see for anyone interested in this fascinating period of history.
The only minor sticking point for the bee was that the writers and directors did not see it fit to require the Russians to speak with a Russian accent. Tom Hollander's very British-English accent felt countervailing against his repeated claims of patriotism and love for all things Russia, for example.
Watched June 2023 at the Noël Coward Theatre, London.