Lucy Prebble's 2019 play exposes a political, murderous regime . . . .
“In Russia, sentence comes before trial.”
Note: This is my original review of the 2019 Critics Circle Awards Best New Play
Lucy Prebble’s A Very Expensive Poison is a play of two halves. The first act takes us back from the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko (Tom Brooke) a British citizen in London by persons then unknown, in 2006. Many of us remember the terrible televised image of the poisoned man in his hospital bed in University College Hospital, London, because Alexander Litvinenko wanted to publicise what had happened to him.
Just weeks before his own death the Russian journalist, writer and human rights activist, Anna Politkovskaya, a friend of Litvinenko, was murdered in the lift in her apartment block in Moscow. In London for six years, Litvinenko had named President Putin as behind the murder of Ms Politkovskaya.
We start with Marina Litvinenko (MyAnna Buring), his widow and her meeting with Ben Emmerson QC (Thomas Arnold) when she is asking for his help in her campaign to force a British public enquiry into her husband’s death. Most of the first half reconstructs Alexander Litvinenko’s life in Russia and his journey to England where he was given asylum.
This action by Russian agents (the KGB or their successors, the FSB) is the suspected second prominent murder case on British soil, the first known about being the murder of Bulgarian dissident, Georgi Markov in 1978 with a ricin poisoned pellet shot from an umbrella. The latest in 2018 took place in the sleepy West Country cathedral city of Salisbury when Novichoc a nerve agent was smeared on the door handle of Sergei Skripal’s house putting Mr Skripal, his daughter Yulia and a local policeman into hospital and killing another English woman whose partner found the perfume bottle containing the nerve agent.
Lucy Prebble has used Luke Harding’s book, also called A Very Expensive Poison, as the basis for her drama. We learn that Litvinenko’s early career had him investigating criminals and corruption and that he was passionately committed to Russia. He was a part of the Counter Intelligence specialising in counter terrorism and the infiltration of organised crime.
Throughout the first act the actors break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience. This is effective at delivering information quickly rather than by means of a dialogue. That first act is impressive with designer Tom Scutt’s wonderfully lit (Mimi Jordan Sherin) box sets clearly defining place from café to the Litvinenko’s apartments in Moscow and London. Peter Polycarpou, who has a wonderful singing voice, plays the Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky and at his lavish parties he will sing Russian songs. Litvinenko took part in 1994 in investigations into an assassination attempt on Berezovsky and later he became responsible for the oligarch’s security. Vladimir Putin was a protégé of Boris Berezovsky.
We have seen the Litvinenkos talking about the British political satire programme Spitting Image with its grotesque puppets and three actors grace the stage with giant cartoon heads as Brezhnev, Gorbachev and Yeltsin. We hear about the Moscow theatre siege by the 40 armed Chechen rebels which resulted in the deaths of between 130 and 200 other people after security forces gassed them ending the siege. This action was decided upon by Vladimir Putin personally according to Litvinenko.
In the Second Act, what might have been a rather serious play takes on some lighter moments as Reece Shearsmith appears as Putin orchestrating or commenting on events from one of the theatre’s boxes at the Dress Circle level. A shadow puppetry illustrates the Russian folktale of two lovers, Pushkin and Ludmilla, and goes on to tell us that two nuclear reactors are named after them where polonium is extracted. Polonium 210 comes from Ludmilla. The two Russian assassins are exposed as incompetent and stupid in their handling of the poison, Polonium 210. It is one of them Dimitri Kovtun (Lloyd Hutchinson) who tells a friend in Germany he was carrying a very expensive poison.
The polonium trail Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoi (Michael Shaeffer) leave across London is illustrated in the theatre with a green radioactive light which spreads in the auditorium up to and around Putin’s balcony box. The London night club Heyjo they visit after poisoning Litvinenko, has dancers on sticks, one dancer supporting two dummies, dancing round a huge, golden phallus and polonium is found there. Song of the Vulgar Boatmen! Traces of Polonium are found all over London and in the Finnish plane flown from Berlin to Moscow, and in Hamburg in the flat of Kovtun’s ex wife and her mother.
Lucy Prebble’s play is as entertaining as Enron was whilst never letting us forget the people dying at the hands of Putin’s regime as he stifles opposition. A few days after I saw A Very Expensive Poison, the British press was full of stories of Russian dissidents not being safe abroad. Theresa May as Home Secretary had initially blocked the request for a public enquiry. Putin was named by the British public enquiry in January 2016, which Marina Litvinenko had fought for, as having “probably” approved the FSB operation. Ben Emmerson QC acting for Marina Litvinenko described Putin as “a common criminal dressed up as a head of state.”
The ensemble performances are thorough. Tom Brooke has that oddness of a man determined to follow his truth. MyAnna Buring is appealing as his wife, endangering her own life and never again seeing her own mother who lives in Russia. This play is only on at the Old Vic for about six weeks but let us hope a theatrical entrepreneur is brave enough to bring it into the West End.
Theatre is at its best when factually based and highlighting important issues. I fully expect A Very Expensive Poison to head the Best New Play lists but I predict it will not be the Evening Standard Best New Play in its November awards. Why not? Because the London Evening Standard is owned by Russian oligarchs, Alexander Lebedev and his son Eugeny Lebedev. Lebedev the elder was formerly a KGB agent
A Very Expensive Poison
Written by Lucy Prebble after the book written by Luke Harding
Directed by John Crowley
Director: John Crowley
Designer: Tom Scutt
Lighting Designer: Mimi Jordan Sherin
Sound Designer: Paul Arditti
Choreographer: Aletta Collins
Composer: Paddy Cunneen
Video: Ewan Jones Morris
Fight Director: Bret Yount
Running Time: Two hours 40 minutes with one interval
Closed at the Old Vic on 5th October 2019
The Old Vic
London SE1 8NB
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Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Old Vic
on 10th September 2019