A Very Expensive Poison review – Lucy Prebble's Litvinenko drama fascinates

Old Vic, London
The twisted tale of the Russian dissident’s death by radioactive poisoning employs songs, puppets and even Putin as an unreliable narrator

Watching Lucy Prebble’s fascinating new play about the murder of Alexander Litvinenko on British soil, I was frequently reminded of her earlier hit, Enron. Prebble once again bases her play on fact, tells a complex story with great clarity and adopts a variety of techniques, including direct address, puppetry and song, to create a uniquely theatrical spectacle.

Prebble openly acknowledges her debt to Guardian journalist Luke Harding’s book of the same name which exposed the astonishing details of the Litvinenko case but she goes her own way about recounting the story. The first half, largely seen through the eyes of Litvinenko’s wife, Marina, reminds us how this former detective with Russia’s FSB (successor to the KGB) died in a London hospital in 2006 of a radioactive element known as polonium-210. His offence was to have exposed the links between organised crime and the Russian government that forced himself and his wife to flee to Britain. Having meticulously explained the background, Prebble then allows Litvinenko’s former boss Vladimir Putin to become the unreliable narrator while showing how two Kremlin hitmen were despatched to London to carry out the killing.

Lloyd Hutchinson and Michael Shaeffer play bumbling hitmen.
Tea for three … Lloyd Hutchinson and Michael Shaeffer play bumbling hitmen. Photograph: Marc Brenner

What is impressive about the play is its kaleidoscopic variety of tone. In part, it is the love story of the Litvinenkos, capturing their closeness, Marina’s occasional criticism of her husband’s dubious anti-Putin tactics in exile and her determination that the truth about his death should be told despite the evasiveness of the British government when Theresa May was home secretary. But Prebble is unafraid to show the black comedy behind a tragic story. The hitmen turn out to be hapless bumblers, one of them even mislaying the fountain pen that contains the poison. Even Putin, who seeks to control the narrative from the vantage point of a stage-box, becomes a smarmy puppetmaster concealing his menace under a mask of ingratiation.

If the tone is constantly shifting, so, too, is the style of John Crowley’s exemplary production. Tom Scutt’s design is a box that contains multiple locations including a London hospital, a Moscow flat, the swish hotel where the poison was fatally administered. But, as with Enron, it’s the theatricality of the piece that constantly surprises: the history of polonium is told through a shadow-play fairytale and the Russian entrepreneur Boris Bereszovsky bursts into song while dining in a swanky Mayfair restaurant.

MyAnna Buring stars as Litvinenko’s wife Marina.
MyAnna Buring stars as Litvinenko’s wife Marina. Photograph: Marc Brenner

The play offers a compelling portrait of Russian corruption and British vacillation – it took nearly a decade for a public inquiry to be launched – and its multifaceted approach is anchored by strong central performances. MyAnna Buring’s Marina emerges as a woman of implacable determination and ferocious loyalty who shares her husband’s obsession with truth. Tom Brooke captures the complexity of Litvinenko, whose moral zeal is accompanied by a desire to protect his family. There is also a gallery of fine supporting performances from Reece Shearsmith as the deviously dangerous Putin, Lloyd Hutchinson and Michael Shaeffer as the barely competent assassins, Peter Polycarpou as the glad-handing Bereszovsky and Thomas Arnold as Marina’s staunch legal ally. It’s an evening that instructs as it entertains and that leaves one appalled at Britain’s initial reluctance to do anything that might antagonise Moscow.

At the Old Vic, London, until 5 October.

Contributor

Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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