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On November 1, 2006, AlexanderLitvinenko, a Russian defector to the United Kingdom, became violently ill as aresult of ingesting a highly toxic element known as Polonium-2010. He had metwith two Russian agents, Dimitri Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoi, and laterinvestigation revealed that the poison was given to Litvinenko by these twogentlemen.

Litvinenko died on November 23,2006 and British authorities showed little interest in investigating the murderof a British citizen which he had become.

His wife Marina pressed the issueincluding taking the government to court and an inquiry was eventually held anda report issued in January 2016. The conclusion was that Litvinenko was killedby Lugovoi and Kovtun and that it was highly probable that the crime wascommitted with the approval of Vladimir Putin.

This summary does not contain toomany laughs and one would seriously doubt that there is enough material therefor a play that has singing, comedy, satire and attempts to be lightentertainment. That is what Lucy Prebble does in her adaptation of Luke Harding’sbook about the murder of Litvinenko that is now playing at London’s Old VicTheatre.

Tom Brooke as Litvinenko looked likea rather sallow and ordinary man who loves his wife and son and is escapingfrom a dictatorial regime. This is the man who dared criticize Putin and made adaring escape from Russia?  MyAnna Buringis very convincing as his dedicated wife Marina who pursues the matter longafter his death.

The British doctors, scientistsand detectives who get involved in the case play it straight and the way onewould expect them to act. Lugovoi (Michael Shaeffer) and Kovtun (LloydHutchinson) are played like clowns. One of them climbs down the ladder on oneside of the stage and they are generally good for a laugh.

Russian oligarch and probablyarchcriminal Boris Bereszovsky (Peter Polycarpou) is just a riot and he evenbreaks into song. There is a sort of host who can be seen in various places ofthe theatre. He wonders that we came back after the intermission and quips thatthe theatre programme at four pounds is very expensive. We are even treated toa segment of the Russian puppet satire show called Kukli. Just the sort of thething the murder of Litvinenko needs.

We do get many facts about themurder and especially the subsequent investigation.  We learn that the then Home Secretary TheresaMay, refused to open an investigation because it may disturb the UnitedKingdom’s delicate relations with Russia and cost a lot of money.

A Very Expensive Poisonhas a lot of ground to cover and the idea of constructing a play around it seemsquixotic. Fifteen actors play fifty-seven characters “plus other roles” if Icounted them correctly. There are numerous scene changes to accommodate theevents that unrolled after Litvinenko’s poisoning and the investigation. Thatalone is a discouraging factor for anyone who wants to turn a lengthy andcomplex set of events into a couple of hours of theatre.

In any event, there it is.


A very Expensive Poisonby Lucy Prebble based on the book by Luke Harding continues until October 5,2019 at the Old Vic Theatre, The Cut, London, England.

October 4, 2019

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