There are a lot of things you’ll learn in A Very Expensive Poison, Lucy Prebble’s new play about Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko.
You won’t know if everything is true – after all, it’s set in Russia in the 1990s, along with all the deceit, fake news and treachery that comes with it. After a clear, fact-filled first half, the narrative collapses into a miasma of brilliant theatrical touches, which perfectly exemplifies both the chaos of the time, and the boundaries you can push theatre to. (See also: an interview with Lucy Prebble.)
The play is, in its essence, a love story between Marina Litvinenko and Alexander, but it’s also a spy thriller, as Alexander tries to piece together why he was assassinated from his hospital bed. This is a story the audience is familiar with. Most of us can remember the photograph taken just before he died, a dying man destroyed by Polonium poisoning, propped upright on his hospital bed wrapped in a green shawl. Prebble’s play, inspired by Guardian journalist Luke Harding’s book of the same name, burrows behind that final photograph, exploring Alexander’s career, his business relationships, and his run-ins with Putin, chillingly played by Reece Shearsmith.
Prebble has managed to turn this extremely dark chapter of global politics and intrigue into a dark comedy. Even if you doubt that you want to sit through something so political and so dark, rest assured: this is a theatrical masterpiece. You like song? There’s song. You like enormous, creepy, Spitting Image puppets? There are puppets. Political intrigue? In spades. A giant phallus? Check.
In fact, the set and costumes, designed by Tom Scutt, are among the real stars of the show. Every element—from the tables at Itsu to the brewing tea bags in the Litvinenko’s home—has been carefully considered. Lighting, by Mimi Jordan Sherin, also deserves a special mention. The clinical hospital is cast in chilling lights, while the Litvinenko’s nervy walk home in Moscow is lit so well that the audience feels as though we too are edging our way down a narrow side-street.
Throughout the play, we’re treated to watching Putin’s rise to power. He constantly casts doubt on Litvinenko’s story to the point where we’re unsure what is true and what isn’t. Director John Crowley has him well and truly cast as a terrifying puppet-master – his fingerprints are literally over everything.
To some degree, this is a play that is simultaneously about a micro event that happened over a decade ago, and the global state of politics. It calls out the Russian football owners and the newspaper owners. At one point, when Russian super-crook Boris Bereszovsky starts to sing, Putin addresses the auditorium. “Oh you like him? The reason you guys at the top [in the cheap seats] can’t get on the housing ladder is because Boris [Bereszovsky] owns about five houses.”
It is a play that constantly challenges us. We are drawn into fun before being brutally crushed by realism. At points some elements feel slightly more didactic than others. Andrei Lugovi (Michal Schaeffer), at one point, has an impactful but slightly overlong monologue about 25 million Russians having died during the Second World War. It’s interesting, but feels slightly shoehorned in.
We learn about Marie Curie; we develop our understanding of the cronyism of Russia in the 1990’s and 2000’s, about a country that’s finally broken free of the shackles of something it didn’t quite want to be part of. Ultimately though, we have fun, we learn, and we leave thoughtful, entertained, and a little bit afraid of the world around us.
A Very Expensive Poison runs at The Old Vic until October 5.
Words by Eleanor Ross. Photos by Marc Brenner.