REVIEW: A Very Expensive Poison, FRANK Mag,’ Oct 19.’

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A Very Expensive Poison, The Old Vic – review by Tamsin Flower

(Feat’ image by Marc Brenner)


Script by Lucy Prebble

Direction by John Crowley


Lucy Prebble’s creative adaptation of Luke Harding’s book tells the story of Alexander Litvinenko’s poisoning and explores how true stories, such as this, are told. 


Opening on a cafe scene between Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, and Emmerson, the lawyer who spearheaded The Litvinenko inquiry, the action is framed in a blacked-off rectangle illuminated by LED strips. The effect is clinical and adhers to established political theatre techniques –  characters step in and out of the frame to address the audience and offer commentary. We are encouraged to question events and how they are presented. Our primary relationship is to Marina, who guides us through the mundanities and plot-twists of Alexander’s period in hospital. She does so with the gentle, rather English humour that becomes a staple of the play.


As we follow the detectives unpacking Alexander’s account of events, the canvas of the stage becomes broader, deeper and more epic in scale. The story’s narrator role shifts from Marina to a heinously cynical Putin figure. We are then offered an intimidating vision of Russia’s ‘mafia state’ in the form of towering imperial doors, emblazoned with black eagles. Variously, parts of the set are dropped, extended, collapsed and replaced as points in the narrative receive a different expressive treatment. Yeltsin, Putin and Gorbachev enter the Litvinenko’s home in the form of giant carnival puppets who watch Alexander’s whistle-blowing press-junket on the television. Act Two opens on a silhouette presentation of the Russian fairytale, ‘Ruslan and Ludmilla.’ It progresses to introduce the nuclear power reactors of the same name, linking the radioactive traces found in Alexander’s body fluids to their place of origin.


Interestingly, the play’s officials, such as lawyer, Emmerson, Martin the UK intelligence agent and Russian MP and rake Andrei Lugovoi who (along with his sidekick Dimitri) administers the poison, are ‘establishment’ stereotypes. There is much comedy yielded from introductions and the etiquette of using ‘how-do-you-do?’ In fact, all of the above would fit happily into an Ealing comedy spoofing the English middle-classes and will please The Old Vic’s audiences. But it also raises worthy questions about similarities/differences between power-play of money and status in Russia and in the UK. By contrast, the relationship between Marina (played flawlessly by MyAnna Buring) and Alexander (a considered performance from Tom Brooke) is tenderly drawn. When not communicating with British officials, they speak in colloquial English, as do their family. The portrait of a couple is relatable and we invest in their cause. 


Following the point at which the public enquiry identifies Andrei and Dimitri as murderers, a chorus of top-hat wearing swells appear cavorting with life-size cut-outs – again signalling the relationship between ego-lust and the play’s central crime. Predictably, the play ends with Marina – dancing with her deceased husband and decrying Putin in a tragic monologue. She then ventures into the auditorium, requesting that audience-members read the undeniable results of the public inquiry. Murmurs from a post-show audience dance around the issue of the play’s end. There are certainly too many endings to drive home one single, resounding message. But rather, we are offered conclusions to a relationship, one woman’s journey and an injustice belonging to the international stage. 


It is debatable whether the play’s excesses of structure and light-hearted content are sufficient to maintain our investment throughout. However, from the satirical puppets to the walls of maps and police strategy and scenes reminiscent of drawing-room drama, we are shown many angles from which to view this personal and political tragedy. Consequently, we not only question the facts and moral failures surrounding the events of  2006, but reflect on the stereotypes and images we attribute to Russia’s identity in western culture. People will no doubt be talking about this production for some time!




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