Lucy Prebble’s A Very Expensive Poison tells the story of the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. That’s a very bad opening line to a theatre review (sorry), but it also contains the key point: Lucy Prebble tells the story of the murder of Alexander Litvinenko and the play does so by making the audience hyper aware of what that act of storytelling involves. The most blatant way Prebble does this is by having Alexander’s wife, Marina Litvinenko (MyAnna Buring), repeatedly step outside of the flash-backed action prior to the murder either to directly address the people sat in the Old Vic, or to talk with the British investigators of the case who often operate in a slightly different time frame to the described events.
The play also goes at ‘storytelling’ from another angle, highlighting the ridiculousness of the Litvinenko assassination with its comedy villain assassins, comedy villain President and botched enquiry thanks to behind-the-scenes political negotiations (or lack thereof). The problem with stories about spies, especially Russian spies, is that even the true ones immediately sound like they’re snatched from the plot of a novel, as if Russian spies only actually exist in the mind of John Le Carré, not irl. Prebble obviously knows this and instead of going down the thriller route opts more for the other long tradition of political storytelling: absurdity and satire.
The best thing by far about John Crowley’s production is Tom Scutt’s superb set design which originally encases the performers within their own boxed-in world, a bit like the screen of an old television set, before exploding away the whole lot to reveal various levels of a dressed and undressed Old Vic stage. The scene changes are so slick at points it’s tempting to give them a spontaneous round of applause. Septic basement café with rows of plasticked sandwiches sliding into a spearmint hospital waiting room giving way to a beige-on-beige Russian living room followed by a… aaaah, it’s just so lovely. I could stare at it all day.
As the plot progresses, the world of the play expands even more into the auditorium. The basic facts of the case are gradually uncovered, specifically where Litvinenko was poisoned (spoiler: it’s not actually Itsu as everyone seems to remember), but the bigger focus is on Reece Shearsmith’s Vladimir Putin who addresses the audience directly. Hanging over the edge of an opera box, he makes basic quips about the Old Vic loos, the ticket prices and the generalised idiocy of the British public. Unsurprisingly to anyone who has ever seen Shearsmith in anything, he performs the role extremely well and gets a lot of laughs from the bitchy asides despite the scripted jokes not always feeling like a genuine match for his talents.
The closer we get to the end, the more the performers slide in and out of character, time frame and setting. There’s a bit of soft audience interaction when people are called on by Buring to read out verbatim testimony or reports relating to the case. The emphasis, always, is on the unreliability of narratives, the absurdity of (male) political posturing and the contrast between the Litvinenkos’ private life and the public one their story is forced to collide with.
It’s an ambitious work, sure, but it wears its ambition very heavily at points. When you break it down, there’s nothing integrally new or radical about its metatheatrical elements, not unless you’ve spent the last century or more in proscenium purgatory condemned only to watch period dress revivals. Crowley’s staging and Prebble’s writing seem constantly preoccupied with keeping the audience’s attention, keeping them entertained with lights, music, dancing, puppets, jokes, giant cardboard cocks, and the assurance that they, the people in the seats, haven’t been forgotten about because here’s another person directly talking to them. Which is perhaps why many people like the play so much, because of the importance it places on them, the paying viewer. “What’s wrong with that?!” You all start to scream. “The fact it violates a core principle of desire”, I reply, before running for safety in the hills. It’s a total turn off when you know someone is working that hard to win your affection.
A Very Expensive Poison is on at Old Vic until 5th October. More info here.