'Patriots' has opened in the London West End to tell the tale of Boris Berezovsky, the Russian oligarch who helped put Vladimir Putin in power.
‘The White Lotus’ star Tom Hollander says he fears for the safety of the cast of his latest play, ‘Patriots’ which opens today in London's West End.
The play is about Boris Berezovsky, one of the original oligarchs who understood the potential of capitalism in the former Soviet Union. They initially prospered and became billionaires under Boris Yeltsin, but at the end of his time in power, Berezovsky introduced Vladimir Putin to Yeltsin, who then anointed Putin as the next President. It was assumed that Putin would be a puppet leader under the control of the oligarchs, but this was a fatal mistake for Berezovsky.
The play was originally staged in July 2022 at the Almeida Theatre in north London, but the BAFTA-winning actor, who stars as Berezovsky, is “more worried” about the transfer to the Noël Coward Theatre since the escalation of Putin's invasion of Ukraine.
“The way that Putin's allies work is that if one of them thinks that it would make them popular with Putin to amusingly wipe out the cast of that silly little play in the West End, at this point, they might actually do it because things are getting so nasty and we are clearly in a proxy war with Russia, however much we pretend we're not. So if anyone wants to donate security to the cast, well, we will accept it gratefully,” said Hollander.
His co-star Will Keen recently won an Olivier Award for best supporting actor for his portrayal of Putin, while Hollander was nominated for best actor, losing out to Paul Mescal in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’.
“It's a sort of really thrilling story to be telling,” said Keen. “I mean, the biggest story is the story of Boris Berezovsky and his rise and downfall but within that, you do get to see kind of an origin story in a way of what Putin's route to power was.”
Luke Thallon plays a baby-faced Roman Abramovich, whose benefactor was Berezovsky, and is too young to remember the events portrayed in the play.
“I am very proud to meet people my age who come away saying, ‘I can see the world a little clearer now. I can understand how this has happened,’” he said. “That makes me very, very, very proud to be telling this story. Also, as someone with Ukrainian heritage, it feels important to be doing it,” said Thallon.
To inhabit the character of Berezovsky, Hollander said he is not doing an impression of the man, but of his spirit.
"He's not such a well-known character that there's the burden on me to do an exact impression of him but I need to inhabit the energy and the spirit and the sort of mind that he had and he was a very larger than life character with a, who was very funny and boundaryless and a gambler and was a very exciting person to be around. People thought he was dangerous and they disapproved of him, but he was very charismatic,” he said.
“Berezovsky was one of the modernising people in Russia,” Hollander adds. “When Gorbachev introduced glasnost and perestroika and the Soviet Union was collapsing, there was a group of people that wanted to take Russia towards the West, and Putin appeared to be one of them at the beginning. Putin appeared to be interested in democracy and free speech and removing all the things the totalitarian authoritarianism of the Soviet period. But Putin, once he became president, pulls back and becomes much more like an old-fashioned Russian dictator and Berezovsky continued to want to promote Western ideals — not just free market economics, but freedom of speech, elections.”
Keen changes his body language throughout the play to reflect Putin's increase in power and dominance over Russia, and of course had a wealth of footage, documentaries and books to study in order to create the character. His accurate and uncanny portrayal of Putin has made a strong impression on audiences in London, who have been booing him.
‘Patriots’ is by writer Peter Morgan, who rose to fame with his play-turned-film Frost/Nixon. It’s Morgan’s first play since ‘The Audience’ which set the groundwork for his multi-award-winning Netflix hit, ‘The Crown’.
‘Patriots’ has a limited twelve-week run at the Noël Coward Theatre, through 19 August 2023.