Theatre Review; A Very Expensive Poison, Old Vic
PUBLISHED: 17:19 12 September 2019 | UPDATED: 17:19 12 September 2019
Lucy Prebble’s ambitious play uses puppetry, song and pitch dark humour to explore the poisoning of Muswell Hill whistleblower Alexander Litvinenko by Russian agents
In 2006, Muswell Hill whistleblower Alexander Litvinenko was killed by Russian agents with a rare radioactive substance called Polonium. He was buried in Highgate Cemetery in a lead-lined coffin - Rachmaninov and Stravinsky were played at his Lauderdale House memorial where exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky gave the eulogy.
The story of how 'Sasha' helped solve his own murder as he lay dying in Barnet Hospital is just part of Lucy Prebble's ambitious play, which marries geopolitics with a touching but unsentimental love story between the Russian dissident and his firecely loyal wife Marina.
From Russia's ongoing war with the West, to British collusion - then Home Secreteary Theresa May nixed an inconvenient inquest because of Russian spending in private schools, buying newspapers and football clubs it suggests - Prebble's aim is deadly serious.
But the detective story - as Police traced 10 locations where the hit-men trailed their lethal doses - is also a black comedy of bungling assassins who tried three times to poison Litvinenko while dressed like KGB agents from central casting.
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Director John Crowley ably marshals multiple strands and buckling timelines as we go back to discover that Litvinenko was an anti-corruption detective who exposed links between organised crime and the post-Glasnost Yeltsin Government.
After reporting his investiations to new FSB chief, one Vladimir Putin, (a comically sinister Reece Shearsmith) his life is so threatened that he flees to Britain.
MyAnna Buring's dogged Marina anchors Prebble's sometimes unwieldy piece, directly addressing the audience even as Putin, the puppetmaster behind Litvinenko's murder, heckles and intervenes from the royal box, insisting that curated reality is better than the truth.
Metatheatrical flourishes highlight the story's absurdities, giant Spitting Image puppets of Russian presidents invade the couple's Moscow apartment, the flamboyant Berezovsky bursts into song and dance, and the story of Polonium's discovery and creation in a Russian nuclear reactor is told in a shadow play.
Tom Scutt's ingenious box design disassembles and desconstructs to show the theatrical machinery, swiftly transporting us from tacky nightclub to Moscow flat to hospital ward.
As with Enron, Prebble is brilliant at clarifying complexity while Tom Brooke never lets Litvinenko's moral zeal feel one dimensional. Although the urge to keep reminding us of theatrical trickery is sometimes tediously alienating, the play tellingly ends with an unadorned reading of a verifiable truth, the Public inquiry's findings into Litvinenko's murder.