A Very Expensive Poison @ New Theatre

Verdict: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.5 (reviewed Sat 26 Aug)

Move over Oppenheimer, THIS is the must-see conspiracy of the year!

When Margaret Thanos is in the director’s chair you know you’re in for a great show. Ambitious, political and entertainingly OTT, this version of A Very Expensive Poison reflects Thanos’ vision for powerful, impactful theatre, as big as a Scorsese or Cameron picture.

The large ensemble reassembles most of the cast and creatives that we last reviewed in Labyrinth, also a political play directed by Thanos. She told Sydney Theatre Reviews at the time about what draws her to these passion projects:

“I do believe that telling stories can change the world. It’s so important in contemporary society to have a sense of empathy. From my understanding of the political sphere I see a lot of people losing compassion for each other, losing the understanding that we are all human beings. And I think that’s what stories facilitate – they facilitate observing an experience that is not your own and having a feeling about it – having sympathy or empathy for the character. And that’s why I think directing a show can be just as much a political statement as going to a protest or making an Instagram post.”

This play tells the true story of Russian secret agent, Alexander Litvinenko, and how he was murdered by radiation poisoning, after drinking green tea laced with Polonium-210. The plot sounds like it’s straight out of a James Bond film, complete with plenty of raunchy sex and espionage, but there’s more to this complex story that elevates it above action-hero genre.

The actors’ delivery is an enticing cocktail mix of serious drama and random humour, with characters frequently breaking the fourth wall to get the message across of just how closely we are connected to this real life tragedy. Alexander Litvinenko (played by Richard Cox) just wants to do an honourable job in a high risk profession, but he’s up against some pretty hardcore fucked up shit, including a democratically elected despot named Vladimir Putin (played with creepy clownish relish by Tasha O’Brien). End of Act 1 reminds us of Putin’s involvement in the siege at Moscow Theater crisis which resulted in the deaths of 130 hostages. We sit there, too shocked to realise we now have to leave for intermission, but none of us do. 

Poison’s other antagonist is extravagant businessman Boris Bereszovsky, a sort of Russian Donald Trump played with coke-head playboy charm by none other than Angus Evans (of course!!). In Labyrinth we described his performance as “a demented Willy Wonka crossed with Emperor Caligula”. In this play, the character that everyone wants to (literally) assassinate even gets his own musical numbers. Putin is not amused.

Chloe Schwank plays Marina Litvinenko, devoted wife of Alexander, with grace and authority. Their relationship becomes the focal point of the story, how they navigated the danger, the secrecy and the tragedy that engulfed them. Alexander did not not die immediately from Polonium poisoning; it took at least 20 days of agonising pain while in hospital, during which he publicly shared his final words to the perpetrators of the crime. It would take Marina another 10 years to finally bring his case to justice against a slow and reluctant UK government, too used to relying on soft power and quasi diplomatic relations. It’s hard to believe that back in the day Tony Blair rang Putin to congratulate him for being a hero during the siege crisis. Theatre sorely reminds us that history won’t be forgotten. 

It’s very pleasing to see dancing and acrobatics being incorporated into this production, with very dynamic choreography facilitated by movement director Diana Paola Alvarado. The freeze framing and background activity also populates the scenes with a sense of action and sinister purpose. Even the medical staff seem particularly nonplussed at having a poisoned patient on their hands, and their apathy feels part of the conspiracy.

Costumes by Aloma Barnes keeps us connected to a vibrant, dynamic story (just quietly, we’d love to know the source of Marina’s red velvet dress at the end of Act 2). The set design also by Aloma Barnes generously fills the stage at New Theatre with a bleak, stone cold grey tunnel, creating the backdrop in  Russia / UK where this play is set. Against this bleakness, the crazy antics of Russian roulette in a world of money, women and corruption stand out with vibrant pops of red and sparkle. Gorgeous lighting design by Jasmin Borsovszky drapes the characters in an aura of mystery and intrigue.

If there is any room for improvement, it would be to rely a little less on breaking fourth wall. The intention makes perfect sense during the siege (to create a personal connection) but overusing it breaks momentum and loses dramatic impact. Alexander’s final speech is too important to be rushed through with casual Aussie drawl. After witnessing Cox’s deeply immersed and methodical characterisation as Alexander, for him to then break character, one almost has to ask, what was the point of doing all those Russian accents in the first place? Similarly, Schwank’s sudden break of character (‘well, I’m not really Marina Litvinenko’) is too jarring. Suspension of belief is what creates the magic of theatre. As Chaplin says in Chaplin directed by Richard Attenborough, breaking character breaks a contract with the audience that you just can’t win back. And, as much as it’s tempting to engage members of the audience by asking to read judges’ verdicts out loud, hearing them stumble and trip over Russian names loses force when you have an ensemble of 16+ actors with much more vocal professionalism and power. We get it, we need to be ‘part of the story’, but this type of appeal isn’t necessary to create empathy. It was there from the beginning.

On another note, the script by Lucy Prebble is quite convoluted and clunky in Act 1, and the pace feels like being stuck in 3rd gear on the M1 with random spurts of energy to keep it going forward. Act 1 alone is 90 minutes (!!) and feels like a protracted dramatisation of a Wikipedia entry. However, Act 2 swiftly picks up the momentum and drives home the intention that fully captivates the audience: who poisoned Alexander Litvinenko and how did it happen? We are fully invested in this objective, which is clear, purposeful and intentional. The sound of radiation detection devices is the most riveting piece of detective theatre seen in a long time, and the reference to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is a nice touch.

Overall, A Very Expensive Poison is challenging theatre that uses humour very effectively to make it accessible and engaging. Well done to Thanos, the cast and the creative team for taking risks in creating bold, daring theatre, and pouring incredible love, energy and passion in realising the artistic vision.

A Very Expensive Poison is playing at New Theatre until 16 September. For tickets and showtimes, go to https://newtheatre.org.au/a-very-expensive-poison/

Image credit: Bob Seary

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