I was bone-tired from my day. I kept saying to myself “I’ll leave in the interval even if it’s OK. I’ll leave in the interval”.
It is a full and utter testament to how good this show is, that I never left. ‘A Very Expensive Poison‘ is a real-life political assassination story- complete with KGB, CIA, MI5 and Russian mobsters that reverberates from the streets of London to the deadly halls of today’s Kremlin.
Lucy Prebble is a genius and has teamed up with another genius in John Crowley to produce a comic, emotional, farcical and yet always serious piece that sends you laughing and crying as much as it leaves you reeling at the end when you are shown the lengths some will go to just to retain power, and keep their corruption unveiled. History is always written and rewritten by the victors or in other words, The West. We know that. Case in point, in the UK the general consensus is that Vladimir Putin is a tyrant, in Russia he’s their sex god of a saviour.
So my initial reaction to this retelling of the events leading up to the poisoning and death of Former FSB (formerly the KGB) agent and UK asylum seeker Alexander Litvinenko was scepticism. No, I don’t see Russia as a saintly country. Far from it. But why turn our eyes so far from home when everything we know is about to implode in a Brexit-like extravaganza on Halloween no less? But the longer I sat in my chair watching this tale unfurl, the more I saw the replication of this story in any and all societies. How easy it is to divorce the truth from justice as, they are no longer, and possibly never were, the same thing, and how necessary this story is.
It is new writing though so there is a pinch of salt one must put in one’s mouth before the proverbial vodka (yes I know, Russian puns) is poured. A relatively unhelpful monologue here about 25 million Russian men dead in the war which, doesn’t really have a reason for being soliloquised nor does it really move the story forward. A song there about Russians finding a gap in the market in Mayfair to take advantage of and get rich from. But overall everything works itself to beauty in this piece of theatre.
There is no weak cast member but Myanna Buring (The Witcher) was stellar, intricate and powerful as Marina Litvinenko, a performance beautifully matched by the calm balance Tom Brooke (Game of Thrones) gave as Alexander Litvinenko to produce a true marriage of bodies and souls onstage for the audience to witness. Another stellar performance belongs to Reece Shearsmith as ‘The President‘, a thin veil for Putin. He spoke so much without words and truly created a character that was enigmatic, charming and terrifying in equal parts.
New writing and theatre is so interesting. With the infinite devices, one has to tell a story for the first time, it is dangerous as one can go overboard and drown out the message. In a Very Expensive Poison, it sometimes came close to happening but Crowley managed to pull it back from the brink whenever it was really about to go over the edge. Crowley and Prebble use almost all methods of stagecraft as a device to tell a much-needed story and politically motivate fantastically well.
A Very expensive Poison ran at the Old Vic until Saturday 5th October.