Opinion| English theatre portrays Putin as a paranoid psychopath

Marwa El- Shinawy
9 Min Read

Art in general — and theatre in particular — cannot be separated from politics. Art is not just a reflection or a mirror of reality. In fact, art — especially at a time of major political crises — turns into an effective political tool for interpreting and justifying facts from different points of view.

Therefore, historical events may be fixed, but dramas deal with them from different points of view to present the same historical truth, but from a different perspective and a different interpretation that contributes to the formation of peoples’ awareness.

Perhaps Peter Morgan’s ‘Patriots’, which is currently on display at Almeida Theatre, London, is one of the most outstanding examples of art’s ability to give a mental image and artistic interpretations of historical facts that remain stuck in the minds of the masses and contribute to the formation of their opinions.

The play deals with the life story of Russian oligarchic billionaire Boris Berezovsky and his exciting story with Russian President Vladimir Putin, about which there are certainly no specific documents, but it is a set of gossip and anecdotes that have been circulated in the media.

This is where many believe that the oligarchs — and Boris Berezovsky in particular — are the reason behind Putin’s accession to power, and they are the ones who created Putin’s legend.

Russian oligarchs are a group of businessmen from the days of the former Soviet republics who rapidly amassed wealth during the era of Russian privatisation following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.

When Boris Yeltsin became the new president of the Russian Federation, Berezovsky emerged as Yeltsin’s main supporter and was a powerful influence on public opinion. Thus, Berezovsky became close to Putin, turning him into a politician. In 1997, Yeltsin appointed him deputy head of his presidential administration; by 1999, Yeltsin appointed him as prime minister of Russia.

When Yeltsin announced his sudden resignation on 31 December 1999, Putin skilfully prepared himself with the support of Berezovsky — according to several claims — and key oligarchs to become acting president; a position he secured by winning the official election in March 2000. It seems that the oligarchs and reformists who represented the Yeltsin political family were very comfortable with their new boss, thinking their control over the new emerging Russia was secure.

But soon, the defining moment came in the removal of the oligarchs and the overthrow of the old guard in the Kremlin, solidifying Putin’s future rule. Between 2000 and 2004, Putin engaged in a power struggle with some oligarchs and reached a “major compromise” with them. This deal allowed the oligarchs to maintain their powers in return for their apparent support and alignment with Putin’s government. During Putin’s reign, many business oligarchs rose to power often because of personal relationships with Putin. 

However, despite the political accommodations with the oligarchs, the conflict with controversial billionaire Berezovsky continued, as Russia became fed up with Berezovsky’s positions regarding the Chechen war and his great political influence and opened investigations into his economic activities.

As a result, Berezovsky fled to London in 2001, where he was granted political asylum. Berezovsky was convicted of fraud and political corruption, and from the safety of the UK, Berezovsky began to criticise and attack the Russian administration.

Berezovsky then proceeded to campaign against Putin. In 2006, for example, Berezovsky stated to a Moscow radio station that he was working to overthrow the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin by force. In the same year, Berezovsky accused Putin of poisoning dissident Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko.

In 2007, Berezovsky told the British press that he was preparing for a revolution to overthrow Putin by force by funding important people in the Russian administration. The Russian Prosecutor-General then opened investigations into the possibility of indicting Berezovsky on charges of attempting to seize power by force. The British Foreign Office also condemned Berezovsky’s statements and warned him that the country may reconsider his status as a political refugee.

However, it is alleged that Berezovsky was subjected to several assassination attempts. It is alleged that a Russian agent came specifically in 2003 to kill Berezovsky. But the plot was discovered by dissident Russian agent Litvinenko and reported to the British police. And in 2007, a hired killer who was plotting to end Berezovsky’s life was arrested in the UK. The accused was deported to Russia and the Kremlin denied his connection to the matter.

This exciting political conflict in which gossip and rumours may have played a prominent role became an attractive story that was dealt with in the play interestingly and dramatically. This is where the writer portrayed Putin as a Frankenstein’s monster created by Berezovsky that he lost control of.

An interesting dramatic image that effectively contributes to the campaign of demonisation of the Russian side adopted by the west, especially after the war in Ukraine and Europe’s desire to unite against Putin. Herein lies the power of art to sharpen the energies of the masses and direct them. This is where the writer takes the story of Vladimir Putin’s rise and tells it from the perspective of an exiled billionaire, depicting how Putin goes from a repressed bureaucrat to a leader who is ruthlessly hostile to any individual — or country — he perceives to have betrayed him.

The dramatic performance of Will Keen as Putin portrays him as the greatest and most sinister force on the stage. His performance is not just an imitation of the character, but through his performance, he emphasises Putin’s megalomania and his sincere desire for Russian imperialism and expansion.

True, there is no mention of Ukraine, but in its final incarnation, there is every indication of a desire to restore the past glory of Russia. Despite this, the show is not without objectivity to some extent, as the show also presents an especially interesting moment that is a reference to Putin’s desire to join NATO in 2000, noting that the west’s reluctance to admit Russia contributed greatly to the situation we are seeing today.

Will Keen’s powerful performance is certainly matched by that of Tom Hollander as Berezovsky, who presents that billionaire as an equally cynical and persuasive man, always oscillating between bravado and fury and gaining wealth through the automobile, media, and oil industries respectively. The play is also full of political projections, and not just of Russian affairs — such as Morgan’s ironic references to the “arrogance and hypocrisy” of the British elite, the country of the exile of Bryzewski, and many members of the oligarchs.

Despite all the insinuations and the mental images that this controversial play imposes on Putin, this will not change the reality of things in anything. Europe has drifted behind Biden, who led it into the trap of war with Putin. And certainly today, European countries are no longer united against Putin, especially after the food and energy crisis.

* Marwa Al-Shinawy is an Assistant Professor at the International American University for Specialised Studies (IAUS)

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