Sep 6th, 2019
A Very Expensive Poison, The Old Vic
The audacious machinations of Putin's Russia are put on blast in Lucy Prebble's ingeniously staged telling of the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, adapted from Luke Harding's book about the case. Told from the heartbreaking perspective of Marina, his wife (an incredible performance from Myanna Burning), who fought for years for an enquiry, Prebble takes us into the eye of the storm, expertly imbuing the farcical nature of the plot to kill the ex-detective with pathos and poignancy - and dash of vaudeville.
Beginning at the end of his life, in a hospital surrounded by doctors in hazmat suits, Marina and Alexander Sasha' (a highly affective Tom Brooke) decide to turn back time, illustrating the circumstances that led to that famous image of him bald, bedridden and calling for justice. Formerly an investigative detective for the FSB (the modernised KGB), Sasha takes the police through his own life and the uncovering of corruption in the agency that ultimately killed him. Straight forward in the first half, we learn about his fight for democracy and attempt to appeal to his new boss, who just happens to be one Vladimir Putin. From then on, it's Putin's show. Played with fantastic maliciousness by Reece Shearsmith, he attempts to obscure the story with song, dance and puppetry, drawing focus away from the stage at his perch in the royal box, using the same tactics of his very real counterpart to confuse and confound his people.
But this time, this grandstanding is shouted down by Marina and Sasha, who fulfil their story, ending up back in the hospital, stepping out of character to beg the audience to recognise what has happened, and the miscarriage of justice that led multiple british governments to downplay the murder in favor of political and econmic reasoning. It's stark and brave, and wholly astonishing. Sharing just a little of the painful frustration leaves you filled with anger and sympathy. I left the theatre nearly in tears at the sheer unfairness of it all.
Whilst Prebble and director John Crowley have created a stunning piece of theatre, the play's true meaning comes from its essentiality, giving a very loud voice to an issue that still continues today, lifting the Litvinekos from the newspaper pages with humanity and respect. I doubt you'll see a more vital work this year.
View our show pages for more information about A Very Expensive Poison, Old Vic Theatre.
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