Putting Putin Onstage, in ‘Patriots’

On a recent evening, British actor Will Keane took the stage at London’s Noel Coward Theater to play one of the world’s most divisive figures: Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.

Most of the first half ofpatriotsis set largely in the post-Soviet 1990s, Keane sympathetically portrays the character as a low-level politician who can only buy cheap suits and whose success depends on his friends’ huge sums of money. Keane’s portrayal then becomes chilling when an adviser advises Putin to keep his enemies close. “Why would you want to do that when you can easily destroy it?” he replied.

Written by “The Crown” creator Peter Morgan, “The Patriots” stars Tom Hollander as Boris Berezovsky. Boris Berezovsky is a real-life oligarch who made his fortune in post-Soviet Russia but was exiled to London after falling out with President Putin. He died mysteriously in 2013.

Despite that focus, it’s Keen’s performance that’s grabbed the attention since the play premiered at London’s Almeida Theater last June.Alifa Akbar in the Guardian paperstated that even as Putin “becomes megalomaniacal, Keane eschews satire and continues to make the characters’ self-righteous aspirations for Russian imperialism compellingly realistic and chilling.” rice field. Matt Wolfe reviewed the production for The New York Times, stating that Keane was “surprised throughout”. In April, Keane won the Olivier Award for Best Supporting Actor, the British equivalent of the Tony’s Awards.

In a recent interview at the Noel Coward Theater, where “Patriots” is running until August 19, Keene said the script was written long before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, but that the war had forced the play to be canceled. The mood has changed, and it seems to be both the story of the end of the oligarchy and the “origin story” of President Putin. Keane, 53, said his performance unsettled some audiences, but he said he was “happy to be on a show that asks questions instead of giving answers.”

In an interview, Keane spoke about what he learned from being inside Putin’s head. Below is an edited excerpt from that conversation.

What made you want to play such a character?

Well, I first learned of this in 2021, so before the invasion. It didn’t have the presence it does now. He felt like a decidedly dictatorial and terrifying person, but he didn’t feel like a dictatorial and terrifying person who also affected the security of the world. It’s interesting to see how perceptions of him and theater continue to change.

You are often played as a villain or an antihero, Including Macbeth. and Father MacPhail in “His Dark Materials.” Worried about being typecast?

The public may see them as bad guys, but as actors, they don’t. I want to be as sympathetic to the character as possible, or at least as empathetic. Putin is a villain, but I don’t want to play him as a pantomime.

I am very interested in our perception of dictators. From our side it is an image of immorality. But in order to accomplish what he has done, he must have an incredibly intense sense of his own morality, the idea of ​​righteousness, of righting wrongs. .

Some political commentators say Putin’s motivation is his desire to restore the Soviet Union. Is that what you mean by correcting a mistake?

I’m not in a position to comment politically, but my feeling for this character is that he has a particularly sensitive attitude towards betrayal. It’s a bit like the medieval notion of royal power, where a king somehow becomes a country. There is a sense that Russia, the land, is his body, and there is a wholly personal, almost physical betrayal in the collapse of the Union. .

Peter Morgan does a great job of showing how Putin’s personal friendships and the betrayals he experiences in them affect the political realm as well.

Theater critics praised you for imitating Putin physically, not just emotionally in your performance. how did you prepare?

Well, read read read read look look look look look.

The only thing physically that was most beneficial to me was observing him at press conferences. I felt this immense sense of inner turmoil, shrouded by an incredible physical stillness. He has a sense of containment, like he’s trying to keep everything inside himself.

Many have noticed that stillness, especially his right hand does not move while walking. And there are other ex-KGB guys doing the same. The KGB also talks about directing the tension to your feet. And in an interview under the table, his right leg was observed moving very slowly. You can feel his tension through his fingers even on stage.

As the invasion unfolded, did anything change in your portrayal?

Of course, I think about the conflict, but I didn’t say, “Let’s make him colder” or anything like that. The way this play is written will give you chills every time it is performed.

I think it’s actually dangerous to think about the impact it will have on the audience. All you can really think about is, “Is that true?”

This is not the only recent play in which President Putin has appeared in London. In 2019, Lucy Preble said, “very expensive poisonof his involvement in the murder of spy-turned-whistleblower Alexander Litvinenko. Why do you think Putin has become a staple of British theater?

Well, I don’t know if he will become a staple. But what happened in Russia seems fitting for a very interesting play, this ideological battle going on with incredibly high stakes.

And theater has studied dictators since time immemorial, and strong, violent authority is a productive, dramatic force for setting up dissent of all kinds.

All the characters I’ve played so far talk to each other on some level, and of course I compare President Putin to Macbeth. They’re obvious dictators, but in Macbeth’s case the big motive is fear, but I think that’s what seems unfair here. In both cases, the result is some very good masculinity.

How was the audience reaction?

It’s really great, but it seems that some people don’t know what to do at the end, should we clap? Many Russians say they feel like he’s in the room, which is incredibly encouraging.

I don’t think I ever talked to Ukrainians about this. There was definitely a boo at the end. But I don’t know if it was a Ukrainian boo or a British boo. There is a kind of international language called booing.

Did this role affect you personally?

No, wash him off at the end of the show. But it’s a dark place to live there. Not because of guilt, but because of the agony of being a human obsessed with betrayal and revenge.

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