A Very Expensive Poison at the Old Vic: ‘Stylish and Effective’

There’s a morbid excitement when one hears of spies, assassinations and poison today. So many years after the Cold War, this no longer feels like the world of espionage memorialised in stories like those of James Bond. Yet Lucy Prebble’s A Very Expensive Poison at the Old Vic reminds us that we might not be as far removed from that cliché as we might expect and reveals the figures in power who manipulate that rather crucial distinction between life and death.

Prebble’s play states early on that its intent is to “Turn the truth into justice, which is not the same thing.” Yet justice is something Alexander Valterovich Likvinenko’s family have had to wait a long time to receive: though poisoned in 2006 by Russian agents, it was only in January 2016 that a report pointed towards Vladimir Putin and Nikolai Patrushev as ordering the assassination. Prebble sets forth the context and individuals involved in this scheme, beginning with Litvinenko (Tom Brooke) being admitted to hospital with his wife Marina (MyAnna Buring), tracing through the events before and after his assassination. 

Under the inquisition of DI Hyatt (Gavin Spokes), the couple go through the case, walking audiences through the meetings and conversations leading to Litvinenko’s death. Tom Scutt’s episodic set emphasises this temporal journey, focusing on one room at a time. Scenes transition smoothly, moving from a hospital to the Likvinenko’s living room in Russia for example, as if passing through memories, whilst a tube of light borders the play (with lighting design by Mimi Jordan Sherin), framing each part as if watching a TV show. Here is a drama that proves uncomfortable and enthralling at the same time. 

MyAnna Buring.

Many of the successes of this play are due to the tremendous cast. Buring’s strong fragility, like a vase broken but held together by glue (read: the conviction of knowing her husband was murdered), is especially moving. Brooke also puts in a strong performance, though towards the end when narrating his story his enactment of the pains of his illness made audiences realise that other than the first scenes the effects of the poison are not traced during the show. 

Reece Shearsmith as The President holds audiences in the palm of his hand with a gentle smile and affable meta jokes. Having this alternative speaker overlay his thoughts onto the events on stage from a box works well to emphasise how history is distorted and controlled. The rest of the ensemble work well, populating scenes with the variety of life one sees on the streets, though I’m not quite sure what I’d do if I met Peter Polycarpou’s singing Boris Bereszovsky. 

John Crowley’s direction allows a surprising amount of understated comedy to lie next to the horrifying truth of the narrative. Yet for all the earnestness of the performances and the clever staging, A Very Expensive Poison doesn’t quite manage to have its intended effect. The humour interspersed throughout rightly defuses the tension, but it does so at the expense of the play’s tone, which shifts constantly.

Crowley’s production is stylish and effective, and this play rightly tells a tale that might have disappeared from public memory but that feels all the more relevant. The poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in 2018 shocked those comfortably watching the news at home. Surely, we all thought, this doesn’t happen anymore. A Very Expensive Poison weaves the cautionary story of Alexander Litvinenko with delicacy and confidence, reminding us even more that this world is full of terrors unimaginable and individuals willing to silence those who stand in their way.     


A Very Expensive Poison is at the Old Vic until 5th October, 2019.

Photograph credit: Marc Brenner.

Anthony Walker-Cook is a PhD candidate at UCL. @AntWalker_Cook

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