For almost two decades, Peter Morgan has enjoyed the status of semi-official cultural laureate, surveying the state of Britain with the gimlet eye of the master dramatist and storyteller – his only true competitor being James Graham, who, at 39, is a generation younger.
On stage, television and the big screen, Morgan has explored the national soul through a range of lenses – sport (The Damned United and Rush), politics (The Deal and The Special Relationship), and, par excellence, the monarchy. A fascination that began with The Queen, Stephen Frears’s 2006 movie about the tumultuous week between the death and funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, led, seven years later, to the stage play The Audience (an account of Elizabeth II’s relationship with her many prime ministers), and, in 2016, to the global phenomenon of The Crown: a multi-season series of such power that it has given birth to what I call “Netflixstory” – the total fusion in the public imagination of what is assumed to be historical fact and the embellishments that are the inevitable by-product of dramatic licence.
Now Morgan has turned his attention to another nation and another, quite different cast of characters in Patriots (Almeida Theatre, booking until 20 August), starring Tom Hollander as the late Russian oligarch, Boris Berezovsky. Directed by Rupert Goold, the play – the text of which is already available and well worth reading – explores the relationships between the mathematical prodigy turned businessman-baron and three other men: the FSB operative, Alexander Litvinenko; the rising entrepreneur Roman Abramovich (still an apparently callow young man when Berezovsky meets him); and the deputy mayor of St Petersburg – an ambitious ex-KGB officer called Vladimir Putin.
In different ways, Berezovsky takes all three under his wing; acting as their krysha, or protector, in the kleptocratic bandit country of Boris Yeltsin’s post-Cold War Russia. Abramovich represents new money; Litvinenko, security; and Putin, the sort of politician whom Berezovsky believes he can control. Still entranced by the mathematical notion of the “infinite”, he sees in post-Soviet Russia a glorious future in which a handful of spectacularly wealthy plutocrats will steer the new democracy towards prosperity, power and freedom – at least in the very particular hyper-capitalist sense that Berezovsky himself relishes.
As he declares early in the play, his own vision of democracy is very far from the Jeffersonian model; rather, it is “the kind… created eight hundred years ago in Britain when a group of wealthy noblemen came up with the idea of Magna Carta while… holding the monarch by the balls. We are the instigators of the Russian Magna Carta.”
A billionaire with a colossal stake in Russia’s media, oil and aviation, Berezovsky – or Morgan’s version of him – conceives Russia’s new plutocracy in terms that Ayn Rand herself would have understood. As he tells Abramovich: “If the 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.”
Yet for all his mathematical prowess – a key theme in the play – Berezovsky is thwarted by a form of miscalculation: a near-total inability to read the true character of those around him, and an absence of emotional intelligence that leads him to underestimate the cunning of both Abramovich and (fatally) Putin himself.
As Philip Short writes in his comprehensive new biography, Putin: His Life and Times, the man whom Berezovsky helped to achieve the premiership and then, in 2000, the presidency, was never playing his notional patron’s game. According to Putin’s former wife, Lyudmila, he had long regarded Berezovsky as “Enemy Number One”, and, in the winter of 1998, when still head of the FSB, told Markus Lyra, the Finnish Ambassador: “He’s the worst criminal you can think of. He’s going to damage Russia and he will damage your country, too.”
Once Berezovsky used his media power to embarrass the president over the Kursk submarine disaster in August 2000, the break was complete. As Short writes: “Berezovsky, Putin decided, was not just an enemy but a traitor.” (For more on the history of this extraordinary relationship check out Catherine Belton’s Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West and Ben Mezrich’s Once Upon a Time in Russia: The Rise of the Oligarchs and the Greatest Wealth in History.)
At heart, Morgan’s play is about competing varieties of 21st-century nationalism. For Putin, the oligarchs were not the saviours of the motherland but only intermittently useful tools in the creation of an authoritarian state that could bring order and, potentially, restore Greater Russia to its territorial might.
As he says to Berezovsky: “I see a country that has fallen into the hands of a handful of self-interested crooks…The State needs to reclaim its assets and its authority. A country cannot be run by businessmen.” And, later, to Abramovich: “The State, as embodied by the President, ultimately has to have control. [Boris] also never understood that once a kingmaker has made a king he has created someone to whom he has to bow.”
At such moments, it becomes increasingly clear that Patriots is not only a play about Russia but a much broader study of the worldwide battle between authoritarianism and democracy – and the ambiguous, often hubristic role played by big business in the struggle between the two. What Putin saw 15 years before Donald Trump was that the door was ajar to strongman leadership – and that he could catch the plutocrats off guard by simply kicking it down.
Litvinenko, of course, was poisoned in London by tea laced with radioactive polonium and died on 23 November 2006; Abramovich has lost control of Chelsea FC and is struggling to avoid the grip of sanctions by presenting himself as a prospective peacemaker in the Ukraine conflict; and Putin sits in the Kremlin, pursuing victory of some sort at any cost, bloatedly deranged in his confidence that he can somehow sweeten the savage verdict of history.
As for Berezovsky, he was found dead on the bathroom floor of his Berkshire mansion, a black cashmere scarf round his neck, on 23 March 2013. I would not dream of spoiling Morgan’s depiction of how he met his end.
The topicality of Patriots is hard to overstate. But it is much more than a gripping account of Russia’s recent past, and by no means an opportunity for Western theatre-goers to gloat. At previews, Berezovsky’s claim that London is a city “[w]here officials cannot be corrupted. Where the rule of the law prevails” – a claim that would once have been uncontroversial – has prompted snorts of derision from the audience.
As ever, Morgan compels us to face unpalatable truths about ourselves in the stories he chooses to tell. Do not miss his latest insight into our dangerous, capricious era.
Here are this week’s recommendations.
Black Bird (Apple TV+, 8 July)
This fine drama series is especially poignant as it features the final performance for television by Ray Liotta, who died aged 67 on 26 May while working on a movie in the Dominican Republic. Playing an ex-cop, broken by his own history of corruption and then a stroke, Liotta excels in his exchanges with his son Jimmy (Taron Egerton, also terrific), a convicted drug dealer who has struck a dangerous deal with the FBI. To secure an expedited release, Jimmy must transfer to a unit for the criminally insane and coax a confession from suspected serial killer, Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser). Based on the real-life memoir, In with the Devil: A Fallen Hero, a Serial Killer, and a Dangerous Bargain for Redemption, by James Keene and Hillel Levin, Dennis Lehane’s six-part adaptation bristles with often unbearable tension – not least in the scenes where Hauser, astonishingly creepy as Hall (“The dead are pleasant”), sizes up Jimmy and starts to befriend him. Prestige television of the highest quality.
Thor: Love and Thunder (general release)
So camp is Taika Waititi’s second Thor movie – the fourth in the saga of the god of thunder – that it could more accurately be said to have gone for the top tier of glamping. Unashamedly garish, psychedelic in its use of CGI and gleeful in its wit and sense of fun, Thor: Love and Thunder picks up the story of the Norse deity (Chris Hemsworth) after the events of Avengers: Endgame, to find him still working alongside the Guardians of the Galaxy but basing himself in “New Asgard” (where Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie is sovereign). Danger arises in the form of Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale), whose moniker is pretty self-explanatory, while love returns unexpectedly in the form of Dr Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) – who more or less disappeared from the franchise after Thor: The Dark World (2013), but is now seriously ill and using Thor’s original hammer Mjölnir to absorb its magical powers and try her hand at the life of a “space viking”.
To add to the mix of sci-fi, myth and cultural play, there are cameos from Matt Damon and (memorably) Russell Crowe as Zeus; a dazzling metropolis for top gods called “Omnipotence City”: and fantastic use of music, especially the guitar riffs of Guns N’ Roses. Twenty-nine films in, it is good to see that the Marvel Cinematic Universe – occasionally just a little too earnest – can still send itself up, and deliver a joyous slice of popcorn entertainment that boasts a god of dumplings (no, really), an Abba montage, and two gigantic space goats.
Columbia Noir #5: Humphrey Bogart (Indicator)
“How can a man so ugly be so handsome?” asks Märta Torén of Humphrey Bogart in Curtis Bernhardt’s Sirocco (1951), one of the six noir movies produced by Columbia that are collected in this lavish Blu-ray box set, the fifth to be released by Indicator. It is a question that captures the dichotomy of Bogart: the oscillation between impulsiveness and quiet stoicism; the womaniser who is sometimes completely indifferent to the opposite sex; the gangster who is more likely to come good in the end than the crooked cops pursuing him. The five other films are well-selected – Dead Reckoning (1947), Knock on Any Door (1949), The Family Secret (a 1951 movie made by Bogart’s Santana Productions) and The Harder They Fall (1956) – and the idea of reappraising the screen legend through the prism of this particular genre is inspired, showing how much Bogart truly owed to the conventions and pathologies of B-movie noir. As ever with Indicator, the extras are superb, too.
The Wrath to Come: Gone with the Wind and the Lies America Tells – Sarah Churchwell (Head of Zeus)
It is a measure of the profound cultural and social controversies embedded in Gone with the Wind (1939) that, after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, HBO Max temporarily removed the movie – still, when inflation is taken into account, the most successful of all time – from its streaming service. In The Wrath to Come, Sarah Churchwell (who has also written compelling books on Marilyn Monroe and The Great Gatsby) suggests persuasively that the film and Margaret Mitchell’s original book are “the skeleton key” that unlocks “America’s illusions about itself.” Much more than the overt racism of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), Victor Fleming’s blockbuster film, starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable, secured a place in mid-century mainstream American culture for the pernicious myth that the South had been the victim of northern invasion, that slavery was a benign arrangement and that the “Lost Cause” embodied by Scarlett O’Hara and Tara was the nation’s true tragedy. Churchwell is especially good at connecting the delusions of the antebellum world to the 21st century nativism that underpins Trumpism and its new variants to this day, and lurked beneath the bloody invasion of the US Capitol on 6 January, 2021. Rich in detail and rigorously argued, this is cultural history at its very best.
The Celts: A Sceptical History – Simon Jenkins (Profile Books)
For decades, the rigour, style and mischievous wit of Simon Jenkins’ writing have been a jewel in the crown of British journalism. In this bracing history, the Guardian columnist and former Times editor tackles the myths of “Celticism” and demolishes the notion that a monolithic population of Celts was overwhelmed by Anglo-Saxons in the fifth century and beyond. The genetic variety of indigenous Britons in that era has been clear from the evidence of DNA archaeology since the 1990s. “There was no such tribe, country, culture or language,” he writes. “Not only that, but the peoples customarily identified as Celtic have never behaved together so as to justify one name.”
Witness, then, the resilience in the English psyche of “a Victorian ideology of Saxon superiority relegating the Irish, Welsh and Scots to the nuisance fringe of history”, and the consequent inability of the Westminster political class to build and nurture a sustainable British federation. A fascinating exercise in time travel, but also a manual for our own era.
Soul Survivor: The Autobiography – P.P. Arnold (Bonnier Books)
From its very first pages, this memoir by the mighty soul legend is riveting. Trapped in a miserable, abusive marriage, Patricia Ann Cole was whisked in 1965 into a life that could scarcely have been more different – as an “Ikette” backing singer to Ike and Tina Turner: “We were like a baby Supremes, only raunchier… God had given me a talent and shown me a way out of hell.” This launched her – as P.P. Arnold – into a career spanning more than five decades as a solo artist, collaborator with an extraordinary range of superstar musicians, and living embodiment of the greatness of African-American R&B, gospel and soul music.
The book is a treasure trove of stories: from her affair with Mick Jagger (“hot and heavy and romantic”), and her classic 1967 recording of ‘The First Cut is the Deepest’ (“it was perfect for me. Cat Stevens never released it as a single because he always said he considered my version to be the definitive one”) to her 1996 cover of the Small Faces’ track ‘Understanding’ with Primal Scream (“After they’d had a few drinks, I couldn’t understand their Scottish accent at all, but the track turned out amazing”). But Soul Survivor is also fascinating on Arnold’s ancestry and her passionately felt debt to her roots.
Come to our very special Thinkin with the author on 12 July, pick up your copy of the book – included with your ticket – and get it signed by the lady herself (there’ll be surprise vinyl goodies at the event, too). Friends of Tortoise members can join P.P. Arnold for dinner after the ThinkIn at The Charlotte Street Hotel, London (places are limited). Please email email@example.com. (And just to get you in the mood, check out this Tortoise P.P. Arnold playlist, compiled by our Head of Programming, Mark St Andrew.)
Last Night in the Bittersweet – Paolo Nutini
It has, I will admit, taken me a long time to embrace the music of Paolo Nutini, who struck me, when he broke through in 2006, as just a little too close to James Blunt for comfort. Sixteen years on, I’m a true believer, thanks to this excellent fourth album from the Paisley-born singer-songwriter. From its opening moments – sampling Patricia Arquette’s line ‘You’re so cool’ from the Tarantino-scripted True Romance (1993) – Last Night in the Bittersweet is a compelling sonic experience, and one that shows how much Nutini has matured and explored his musical options since Caustic Love eight years ago. His sheer range is remarkable: from Krautrock on ‘Lose It’ and the soul-bearing mood of ‘Acid Eyes’ to the rock pop of ‘Shine a Light’ and the exquisite seven-minute ballad ‘Take Me Take Mine’. Aged 35, Nutini is an artist who is only getting started. Tour dates can be found here.
Revoiced – Corvus Consort and Ferio Saxophone Quartet
In what is becoming something of a purple patch for exciting reinterpretation of classical music (see, for example, Creative Sensemaker, 16 June), the Corvus Consort joins forces for their debut album with the Ferio Saxophone Quartet to reimagine compositions old and new to dazzling effect. Earlier works by J. S. Bach, Heinrich Schütz, Giovanni Gabrieli and Orlande de Lassus are performed alongside more recent music by Roderick Williams, Owain Park, James MacMillan and Sarah Rimkus. Formed in 2018 by Freddie Crowley, the consort has quickly become one of the most innovative and adventurous vocal ensembles presently performing, while Ferio – founded in 2014 – has enjoyed an equally rapid rise to prominence. Their 17-track collaboration is a captivating convergence of modernity and Baroque and Renaissance tradition, in which voices and saxophones alike are deployed to draw fresh colour, emotion and impact from works that – in some cases – are very familiar. A bold and fascinating recording.
Happy Hour – Hollie Cook
As the daughter of Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook and former Culture Club backing singer Jeni Cook – Boy George is her godfather – Hollie Cook is the closest that the London pop scene gets to royalty. Yet she has ploughed her own furrow and made her own name, earning her spurs as a backing vocalist for the one-and-only Slits and then defining herself independently as a leading performer of lovers rock, the Black British musical form that first emerged in the Seventies as a romantic alternative to macho Rasta roots-reggae.
In her fourth album, which she has co-produced with Ben Mckone and Luke Allwood, Cook delivers a perfect summer collection of party and festival songs that owes as much to dub, rocksteady and ska as it does to the soulful inspiration of classic lovers rock tracks like Janet Kay’s Silly Games. The stand-out tracks are ‘Moving On’ and ‘Kush Kween’ (which features Jamaican singer Jah9), but Happy Hour deserves to be listened to from beginning to end as the soundtrack to a balmy evening. Check out tour details here.
The Southbury Child – Bridge Theatre (booking until 27 August)
Nick Hytner’s latest production at the consistently excellent Bridge takes as its central theme the role, condition and future of Anglicanism in contemporary England. Do not be deterred by this apparently worthy-but-dull setting, for The Southbury Child is one of the best productions you will see this year. Stephen Beresford’s play is all about the pulp of humanity, the dysfunctions of family and the abrasions between the traditional and the new in today’s communities. Alex Jennings is brilliant as David Highland, a vicar half-ruined by his infidelity and booziness, who decides to take an unlikely stand in the plans for a young girl’s funeral – denying the request of her mother Tina (Sarah Twomey) for the church to be decorated with Disney helium balloons. A small request, you might think, but one that triggers a deep sense of ancestral propriety within Highland and a sense that there are lines that must not be crossed. “Death is death,” he says. “It isn’t balloons.”
Highland’s stubbornness ignites a rebellion in his coastal parish – a people’s mutiny against the dreary rules of the Church that puts him in physical danger. This sharply compounds what is already a deeply claustrophobic home life, in which his wife Mary (Phoebe Nicholls, excellent) and daughters, Naomi and Susannah (Racheal Ofori and Jo Herbert, ditto) struggle for meaning on what appears to be an inexorable downward slide.
Highland is also threatened by the arrival of a young gay curate, Craig Collier (Jack Greenlees), who has his own struggles and demons. The play benefits by not taking sides, or allowing the audience to leap to glib conclusions – and also boasts one of the most genuinely shocking theatrical moments I have seen in recent years.
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner
Photographs courtesy Mark Brenner/Almeida Theatre, Getty Images, Manuel Harlan, Netflix, Marvel/Disney, AppleTV+