Dramatising History

Written by Sophie Drake, Assistant Director of Patriots.

Peter Morgan’s new play Patriots is about the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequential prominence of Russian oligarchs. It’s about the pains of exile and abuse of power. At its centre is a deeply flawed, wilful and dynamic character; a person whose influence yielded catastrophic results – someone called Boris Berezovsky.

Berezovsky was a Russian businessman who made his fortune during perestroika and under Russia’s ‘loans for shares scheme’ where private state assets were sold in public auctions and purchased by a handful of wealthy businessmen. At the height of his power, he had an estimated worth of $3 billion and, among his other businesses, owned Russia’s State Television channel, ORT. His wealth and influence reached its peak in the late 1990s when he befriended President of the Russian Federation Boris Yeltsin and gained a seat in the State Duma. Berezovsky was a man who capitalised on opportunity, gained immense power, and then fatefully played a part in Putin’s political career.

Boris Berezovsky (Alamy)
Boris Berezovsky arrives at London's High Court (Alamy)

‘If politicians cannot save Russia, then we businessmen must. We have not just the responsibility but the duty to become Russian heroes... We must seize this moment to save the country we love. Lead the country we love. Free the country we love.’ – Boris Berezovsky

Part of our rehearsal process for Patriots has been about crafting character around the context of historical truth. Negotiating the question: how do we sensitively, and dramatically, present pockets of history onstage? Our play deals with not just Berezovsky, but other prominent figures such as Alexander and Marina Litvinenko, Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin. Through investigating these figures, we have received first-hand accounts from those who knew them or knew of them. Accounts of Berezovsky from his acquaintances speak of his limitless courage and unbelievable ambition; his desire to keep expanding and his zest for life. They also reference his idiosyncrasies, with one example recounting the image of him continually scratching his head whilst on the phone. Details like this have provided a helpful springboard from which to embody the character in rehearsals, helping Tom Hollander shape his own physicalisation and vocalisation of Berezovsky.

Marina Litvinenko
Marina Litvinenko meeting the cast during rehearsals

Offering research material to the room has been a large part of my job, helping to contextualise our understanding of Russian history and how our character’s fit into it. Our play spans a vast timeline, predominantly moving from the late 1990s through to mid 2010s, so knowledge of this period has been insightful. We are, however, not documentary-makers, and so part of the craft of rehearsals has been about turning research into exploration and creative investigation, which Director Rupert Goold has led brilliantly.

Another access point in dramatising Berezovsky has come from our exploration of the pains of exile. British audiences will inevitably come to our play with their own preconceived notions of Russia, and so in creating character, we’ve reflected on Western ideas of Russia and how physical and mental separation from a country can affect the psyche of someone. British sensibility towards Russia has inevitably vastly shifted in recent months and so acknowledging our changing perceptions has been crucial.

Patriots rehearsals
Tom Hollander in rehearsals (Photography by Marc Brenner)

Patriots responds to the present moment whilst also portraying larger ideas surrounding the themes of exile, power, and corruption. It’s a robust politically charged play with a deeply complex central character and I hope our audiences will be surprised by this story which charts the dangers of immense ambition and loyalty.

Sophie Drake is a theatre director and dramaturg based in London, whose work has a focus on new writing. She has worked on large scale shows in the West-End and at multiple venues across the UK. 

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