The Old Vic (venue)
10 September 2019 (released)
13 September 2019
The true story of Litvinenko, poisoned by the Russian authorities in a Mayfair restaurant in 2006 is horrifying and fascinating in equal parts. That image of his intelligent face lying weakly on a pillow, yet looking directly at the camera in a pale green hospital gown does not fade. Even having that photo taken was a determined act and though dying, he did not seem cowed – almost defiant. Such is the tone of Lucy Prebble’s new play about a man who risked his life to doggedly pursue the link between organised crime and the government in the country he loved and left, to seek safety in London with his wife and son.
Litvinenko (Tom Brooke) we discover from his loving wife, Marina (Myanna Burin) who is our narrator in the first half, was ‘too trust-worthy’. Unlike most of the FSB (KGB’s successor) in Putin’s Mafia state, he doesn’t drink, he takes efficient notes, leaving a paper trail of his actions and if he discovers something sinister higher up the rank, he looks deeper rather than looking away. The play opens with a meeting between Marina’s barrister soon after his death, before Tom Scutt’s neat box design whisks us back to a sitting room in Moscow to spy on their previous life, where it all began.
Prebble made her name with hit play ‘Enron’, a true story about the financial collapse and this new play is based on journalist, Luke Hardings book, ‘A Very Expensive Poison: The definitive story of the Murder of Litvinenko and Russia’s War with the West (2016)’. What is exciting about Prebble’s works is that they are self-consciously theatrical, despite originating in fact. The use of song and dance is the most obviously theatrical technique but the frequent use of direct address and the shifting narrator’s who challenge our acceptance of what is true are perhaps the most affective. As Vladimir Putin (Litvinenko’s former boss) says from his cynical observer’s position in one of the theatre’s balcony seats, ‘as soon as anyone starts telling a story, they start telling a lie.’ He should know.
Myanna Burin’s Marina is a warm and courageous heroine whilst Reece Sheersmith as ‘The President’ (he’s not called Putin in the cast list) is a complex anti-hero. The scope of the play is broad and at times we are asked to reflect on what shaped the men committing these terrible crimes in Russia. After a rousing speech from Michael Shaeffer reminding us that 25,000 Russian men were killed in the second world war, Putin calmly drops the line; ‘You cannot die with every death.’ But as Litvinenko slips away and the play draws to a close, the over-powering message is that we must honour every death and turn truth into justice.
There is much to intrigue in this drama which shifts from black comedy through political thriller to personal tragedy. The Kremlin hitmen’s numerous bungled attempts to kill Litvinenko are laughable, leaving a lethal trail of Polonium 210 around London’s ‘tourist attractions.’ Truth is certainly more ridiculous than fiction. Then there’s the shameful refusal of the British government to pursue a criminal trial in order not to ‘upset’ the Russian’s and the ten years it took for a public enquiry to confirm that Putin was in fact, directly responsible. 'A Very Expensive Poison' is political theatre at it's best.