It’s not often a show leaves you unsure what to think, usually you come down on one side of the other, you will know whether you think it was good or bad storytelling, if the methods of the playwright and director do justice to the narrative, and whether you have enjoyed yourself or not. Sometimes, these things are not mutually exclusive, you can enjoy yourself without thinking it was a great play or you can admire the use of theatrical devices while knowing they conceal more fundamental faults. Either way, you usually know how you feel.
But Lucy Prebble’s new play A Very Expensive Poison, which enjoyed a luxurious two-week preview period, may leave you grappling with conflicting emotions, unable to quite locate, interpret or even name the exact response it has provoked. Her tale of the 2006 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko is framed as a murder mystery, one that takes the audience back in time to Mother Russia to understand how the Litvinenko family ended up in England – where citizenship had recently been granted – and just who was responsible for ordering and carrying out the death of Alexander. The play quite rightly asks some very big questions not just about the freedom of foreign operatives to undertake political business and state-mandated assassination attempts on British soil and the apparent disdain for sovereignty and international law that this suggests, but also, in our era of fake news and narrative deception, how easy is it to lose sight of the real people the headlines affect.
Starting with the positives and Prebble’s clearly well-researched play has much to say about the ownership of storytelling, and while these themes are not elucidated with the power and purpose that perhaps this subject deserves, there is a desire to understand how alternative perspectives are both created and subsequently adopted as the ultimate ‘truth.’ There is a coming together in Prebble’s work of both the ‘great men of history’ theory and the notion that ‘history is written by the winners’, particularly when the full armory of state propaganda is at hand and recent historiography has attempted to address the notable gaps in our knowledge of a past shaped by the immediate personal, political and nationalistic needs of the present.
The storyteller themselves also cannot escape their own bias, where their view of the world is shaped by where and when they grew up and the socio-cultural, economic and political experience of their lives. The information she provides offers fascinating context to an event that few audience members would know beyond the series of headlines a decade ago and a famous front-page image of the dying man. The way in which Prebble excavates Litvinenko’s earlier life and situates it not only in his prior work in the FSB but his record of inconveniently standing up to the corruption and misuse of power he observed in his colleagues starts to make sense of what was far from a random attack. One of the most interesting aspects of A Very Expensive Poison is the shifting narrative that Prebble employs to demonstrate how Litvinenko’s story has been purposefully controlled by state actors in the UK and Russia to further and protect existing alliances.
We are show clearly in the second Act that investment in the UK by Russia through property and business connections helped to drive the official response which for a long time denied the Litvinenko family any true justice. How this is fed through the show is managed with interesting technique revealing the layers of FSB administration that distanced senior officials from the crime. One of the show’s highlights is a sinister, knowing performance from Reece Shearsmith playing Putin as a finger-drumming comic-book villain, and it is during one of his speeches that the audience is introduced to the idea that what we are seeing is only one perspective on events, something which he counters with an “official” version just before the interval, insisting we needn’t return for Act Two now he’s revealed the play’s happy ending. Dismayed to see us all again, Shearsmith’s Putin occupies the boxes on the sides of the Old Vic auditorium where, like the Critics from the Muppets, he is able to comment on scenes being played out, arguing against their veracity.
Appropriately, it does encourage the viewer to think about how the presentation of all news and events through the Internet, newspapers and other media are controlled by external forces, how what we see everyday is pre-processed, smoothed and constructed to create a precise impression, spoon-feeding the public only what they need to know. If you take anything away from A Very Expensive Poison then to leave with these two notions of his former career and the context in which Litvinenko’s death occurred, as well this concept of narrative manipulation are the aspects of Prebble’s work that are most successful.
But there is a downside, and by drawing attention to the falsity of these narratives it highlights the play’s own contribution to public storytelling which for all its insistence on this being Marina Litvinenko’s story, to which she contributed and is the driving force, you become increasingly conscious of the writer’s hand, that this is Prebble’s version of Marina’s version of Litvinenko’s experience of his Russian colleagues in a central knot that the play never quite unravels. It is the presentation of this information and the staging techniques applied to the story that are so troubling and this is the source of the unresolved conflict in your thoughts.
There is a sense of levity across the production that sits uncomfortably with the protracted and very painful death that Alexander Litvinenko suffered for, as Prebble forcefully argues, merely speaking out. There is nothing wrong per se with using entertainment to educate, and the positive audience and critical responses furiously promoted by the theatre on social media suggest that many viewers have loved and been deeply moved by the events of this play. But you are also bombarded with theatrical approaches, an exhausting barrage of styles and ideas designed quite purposefully – and some may even say manipulatively – to make the subject matter “fun.”
And there is a huge amount going on here, mixing a variety of visual styles to keep you involved. As well as straight-forward dramatic scenes several characters also break the fourth wall, stepping out of Tom Scutt’s box-shaped set to address the audience, first MyAnna Buring’s Marina, but also Tom Brooke’s Alexander and Shearsmith’s Putin later do the same. As the story unfolds the set gives way, opening-out into the warehouse-like expanse of the Old Vic backstage area emphasising Prebble’s increasingly meta approach concluding with audience members being asked to read excerpts from Litvinenko’s final message into a microphone from their seats.
But director John Crowley and Prebble continue to pull apart the norms of storytelling as actors in giant satirical costumes of Russia’s leading politicians of the late twentieth-century invade the stage as a reference to the Spitting Image-type show that the family had been watching on TV. Later there is an alligator hand-puppet and performers wearing full-sized ballroom dancer models strapped to back and front to create a crowd scene (a bit Generation Game). And there is more visual spectacle to come as the small platform stage moves back and forth to create space for the overarching police investigation that connects the pieces together as well as serving as the three London locations where the poisoning may have happened, the stage for a series of Music Hall acts to accompany Putin’s introduction to Act Two and even a party of disco-dancing Russians – if that sounds simultaneously inventive and exhausting then, well, it is, A Very Expensive Poison doesn’t hold back on the visual assault.
Yet, the audience doesn’t really learn anything new either, this is not a radical re-positioning of public knowledge on the Litvinenko case, but a descriptive history that rarely delves beneath the surface. With the poisoner suspects presented as a blur of cliches, what do generic and stereotyped Russian accents and characters really add to our understanding of why this happened? Wouldn’t Litvinenko be better served by trying to understand a nation where friends and colleagues betray each other at the state’s behest, where personal loyalty means very little and the fear of reprisals, the rise and fall of powerful men and the consequences of betrayal can last for decades. Yes we find out who did it, but we still barely know why.
Buring as Marina is the only significant female character in the play but is given next to nothing to do except plead. There is little sense of Marina as a woman in her own right, who she was outside of the roles of wife, mother and campaigner in which the play confines her. Always an actor who finds many layers, Brooke fares much better as the tragic Alexander drawing out a sense of Litvineko’s pragmatism, a quiet, good natured man looking to do the right thing but with a dogged determination to expose corruption. There’s excellent support from Shearsmith as the sinister and comic uber-villain Putin, as well as Gavin Spokes as the police detective.
Prebble has self-depricatingly referred to the show as “messy” in pre-interviews and it is in several ways; some of the bombast feels superfluous in a story that should be exciting enough on its own. It is fun and silly and engaging but it also trivialises to a degree, and when the play tries to regain lost ground with its serious final passage it loses impact, the seriousness partially undermined by the presentation of this crime as a hoot. Prebble has serious arguments to outlay about the relationship between international governments and narrative misdirection but the broadly comic approach to presentation feels at odds with the meaning of the play. Audiences love it and the critics have largely raved about A Very Expensive Poison but there will be some of us in the middle who just don’t know what to think. Clever and entertaining certainly, but given a man died in horrible circumstances perhaps it’s also a bit glib.