A Very Expensive Poison (New Theatre) – theatre review

The reach and influence of Vladimir Putin is breathtaking. In A Very Expensive Poison, writer Lucy Prebble details and explores the assassination of Russian Defector Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 and surmises that Mr Putin most probably authorised the hit. If it weren’t based on a real incident, A Very Expensive Poison may simply be fanciful fiction. Rather, it is a well-researched tale of intrigue and espionage. In the cloak and dagger world of international surveillance, crimes can be proven but justice rarely achieved.

Image credits: Bob Seary

Alexander Litvinenko (Richard Cox) – a.k.a. Edwin Carter – has been taken to hospital by his wife Marina (Chloe Schwank). At first it appears to be gastroenteritis. However, Alexander’s symptoms become undiagnosable after a few days because his hair starts falling out. After many tests, doctors determine that he has been poisoned by a lethal dose of radioactive material. Detectives are called in, and with death fast approaching, Alexander spills the beans on his past employment with Russia’s FSB (formally KGB). Being a critic of Vladimir Putin (Pasha O’Brien), he had to flee to London seeking asylum.

Alexander’s story involves a myriad of unusual and bizarre people. There is Boris Bereszovsky (Angus Evans), a Russian oligarch, rich from the privatisation of state-owned property in the 1990’s. He’s a playboy, a schemer and another one on Putin’s hit list. The two assassins, Andre Lugovoi (Tom Hanaee) and Dimitri Kovtun (Diego Retamales) are amateurs. Their sloppy handling of the radioactive poison leaves a trail of evidence throughout London. Through their ineptness, an Australian hotel maid jokingly asks them whether they are KGB agents. Marina Litvinenko is unwittingly the meat in the sandwich. She pushes hospital staff to properly diagnose her husband, supports Metropolitan Police to follow all leads and places the blame squarely on Russia’s mad leader Putin.

As for Putin, he’s still a work in progress. What drives his instability is a number, 25,000,000: the number of Russian men who died in WWII. With visions of a new Soviet empire, he burns inside from the apparent disregard by the West to prop up Russia, just as they did for Germany and Japan.

There is a lot of material in A Very Expensive Poison. Skillfully directed by Margaret Thanos, it’s a production that is hard to categorise. Is it a drama? Is it a comedy? Is it a tragedy? Or a musical? Or a dance extravaganza? A Very Expensive Poison is all these things and more. That is what makes it unique. The play is also a political statement aimed in no uncertain ways at Vladimir Putin. “In Russia, sentencing comes before trial” we are warned.

Although long in duration, attention is maintained through the interesting storytelling, short, sharp Acts and mode of delivery (satire, song, dance). Characterisations and creatives worked harmoniously. This play sets a high standard for entertaining truth-telling of historical events. However, it is a dark warning of the dangers of rogue superpower states. Not in the 1930’s, but right now. A Very Expensive Poison is not a ‘should see’, it’s a ‘must see’.

A Very Expensive Poison by Lucy Prebble is at New Theatre, King Street, Newtown until 16 September 2023 Bookings: https://newtheatre.org.au

Paul Kiely
For more of Paul Kiely’s writings on theatre, check out Absolute Theatre

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