Theatre in London

Dead and dusted?

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 13.09.2019

A love story or a thriller? A character study? A political analysis? Lucy Prebble’s new play is all of these. But, more than anything, A Very Expensive Poison is an uncompromising examination of what happened on 1st November 2006, when Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian defector and former FSB officer, drank tea laced with radioactive polonium-210 at the Millennium Hotel in Mayfair. He died in agony twenty-two days later.

Most people will remember the photo taken on his deathbed as a haunting accusation of the Putin regime. Since polonium is not a substance you can easily get hold of, the assumption is that the Russian President, who has ruled over his country for almost two decades now, was involved. Litvinenko’s assassination was meant to set an example and serve as a warning. No words needed!

The play is based on the book of the same title written by Luke Harding, who was The Guardian’s bureau chief in Moscow between 2007 and 2011 – only to be expelled from Russia in part because of his reporting on the Litvinenko case.

Prebble picks and chooses from the wealth of material. She also takes events a step further since she does not present audiences with a docudrama but with a tapestry of different types of writing and atmospheres. The play is both a dark comedy and a family drama, with sparks of humour popping up even at the grimmest moments. John Crowley directs.

At the heart of it is the Litvinenko family: Alexander (Tom Brooke) and Marina (a brilliant MyAnna Buring) are both on their second marriage. Their lives revolve around Anatoly, their son. When the three of them escape to London, Boris Bereszovsky (Peter Polycarpou), Putin’s erstwhile ally and now his fiercest opponent, becomes Litvinenko’s employer.

Whenever Bereszovsky appears, it is party time! His exuberance and his love of life know no bounds. As such, he is the exact opposite of Putin (Reece Shearsmith), a sinister, lonely figure whose cynicism is absolutely chilling. Putin is vindictive and ever ready to strike. Clearly, in his eyes, Litvinenko knew too much about corruption in and around the Kremlin.

And then there are the two assassins, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, incredibly amateur and careless figures who leave traces of polonium in their wake wherever they go. Or had no one actually told them what they were carrying?

Prebble’s theatrical reimagining of what happened is riveting. Superb acting takes you into a shadowy world where mind-boggling bribery and state terrorism go hand in hand. You can also watch one of the UK’s biggest ever murder investigations unfold step by step. A truly extraordinary evening at the theatre.

Meanwhile, at the Donmar Ola Ince directs Appropriate, the 2013 sprawling drama by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins set in an Arkansas plantation house. This is, no doubt, the most cluttered stage you have ever seen – a sitting-room literally covered in junk. Everything has been dumped here as an estate sale is on the cards.

Ironically, the reclusive Lafayette family patriarch remains the central figure though he is dead now. Long buried truths are forced to the surface as the next generation is tearing itself apart. Monica Dolan is an excellent Tony, the eldest of the siblings. She fights tooth and nail for her dad’s reputation once accusations of bigotry and racism fly, yet her yells of abuse fail to cover up her smouldering frustration.

My only squabble would be with the intrusive sound effects meant to introduce supernatural tensions to this house of horrors. Surely, life-size ghosts are not needed; there are already too many secrets and lies to unravel.

A much more intimate, less apocalyptic experience awaits you at the National. Though set in the 1980s, Hansard, a new play by Simon Woods, often feels like a running comment on contemporary British politics. Brexit was not even a concept back then, yet the tensions between the so-called elite and the people, between the Eton boys and everyone else, were central to political events – just as they are today.

The two-hander directed by Simon Godwin starts as an English Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? before it descends into unbearable pain and regret. Alex Jennings stars as Robin Hesketh, a smug junior Tory minister who returns to the Cotswolds house he shares with his wife Diana (Lindsay Duncan). They have been married for thirty years, but they have long drifted apart. Woods makes you laugh, but also shudder at the waste of these lives and at the privileges taken for granted. A very English play.

A Very Expensive Poison, The Old Vic, SE1, to October 5; Appropriate, Donmar Warehouse, WC2, to October 5; Hansard, National Theatre, SE1, now booking until November 25 (NT Live broadcast at Utopia cinema on November 7)

Janine Goedert
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