Today, for whatever reason, it feels difficult to make art about modern politics. Maybe it always has been; perhaps, when Bob Dylan sung about JFK and Martin Luther King, screaming crowds experienced the same sort of whiplash now felt whenever Hilary Clinton gets name-dropped in a drama. In an age when political criticism through the arts feels more vital than ever, why is it that invoking the name and story of a well-known public figure feels just as likely to prompt an eyeroll as a nod of recognition?
Patriots, the new play by The Crown creator Peter Morgan, could hardly be more screamingly relevant if it tried; at times, it really tries. Charting the life of Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky from Presidential kingmaker to miserable outsider, through his eyes the story becomes a bit of a whistle-stop tour of Russia from the 1990s to the early 2010s. It’s tricky to make a show so starkly rooted in what is still the biggest global news story of 2023 without telling the audience what they already know, and the balance between zeitgeist and insight is one the play never quite seems to crack.
Of course, this all depends on how closely an audience paid attention to post-Soviet Russian history, but even a passing knowledge of the period’s broadest strokes gives the odd sense of being simultaneously smacked round the head with exposition while not entirely grasping some of the business jargon Berezovsky throws around. It doesn’t help that characters have a bit of a habit of spouting facts from their own Wikipedia pages, a necessary evil to cram in the sheer amount of political stuff the plot needs us to understand, but which does dehumanise them a bit.
This doesn’t take away from Patriots’ performances, least of all Hollander’s; as an extroverted outsider even as he sat at the centre of the Russian political machine, his Berezovsky is explosively charismatic, deliberately at odds with the clipped, reserved mannerisms of the cast around him. Will Keen’s Putin, meanwhile, is quietly terrifying, and his transition from grey pencil-pusher to thuggish autocrat is remarkably well-realised.
It also doesn’t quite distract from the fact the story is a whole is a compelling one. Though absurdly well-known names like Roman Abramovich are introduced clumsily, as though expecting some audience gasps of recognition, Berezovsky’s attempts to change the course of the Russian state can’t help but inspire a feeling of dread. By the time the curtain falls, we might not have much more of an idea of the nuances of Russian politics. We are, however, left feeling deeply uneasy. Quietly, Patriots has proved exactly how relevant it is.
Patriots is playing at the Noel Coward theatre until 19 August.