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Peter Morgan Turns His Pen From ‘The Crown’ to the Kremlin

Saturday, 20 April 2024

Original article by Maureen Dowd for New York Times. 

Going from Princess Diana, a lovely icon who generated waves of sympathy, to Vladimir Putin, an icy villain who generates waves of disdain, might be difficult for some writers.

Not Peter Morgan.

After pulling back the curtain on the British royal family for six seasons of “The Crown,” Morgan was keen to move on. He had an idea for a play about the oligarchs who, in the 1990s, helped propel an obscure Putin to power and then had to watch as their Frankenstein changed the course of Russian history in a disastrous way.

The resulting drama, “Patriots,” which opens on Broadway on April 22, offered Morgan a different way to approach recent history, and a new challenge: switching from the royals, who are household names but not ultimately very powerful, to oligarchs, who are super powerful but not generally household names.

Morgan enjoys writing about the vilified, giving them a fighting chance. In “Patriots,” he creates a jigsaw of four Russian men, their fates intertwining in the post-Soviet era, who represent a Byzantine spectrum of moral values.

“It’s just a delicious combination of characters,” Morgan, 60, told me, in an interview at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in Times Square. “There’s a sort of violence, whereas in ‘The Crown,’ there’s this politeness and there’s repression, and it’s very female. There’s something very male, very violent about this play. It felt like a natural thing to do, having spent so much time in the one world to go into another world just to relax a little.”

There were several oligarchs who helped Putin rise from a K.G.B. apparatchik in Leningrad to autocrat in the Kremlin. Morgan chose the most colorful of them for his protagonist: Boris Berezovsky, who cast himself as “the Jew behind the czar.”

Morgan tailors the tale to do one of the things he does best: One character self-destructs, and another exploits that spiral.

Michael Sheen, who played Tony Blair onscreen in a trilogy of Morgan opuses, “The Queen” with Helen Mirren, “The Deal” and “The Special Relationship,” told me that Morgan “finds a moment that is able to ripple out in front and behind, and illuminate what matters.”

Morgan said he loves “riveting personal interactions” with a backdrop of history, when you see the impetus for an event and realize “it’s because of envy, or it’s because of persecution or it’s because of jealousy or because of love.”

Despite the model of Shakespeare, he thinks that we too often tend to separate the emotional and psychological from our reading of history and politics.

“In a sense, I enjoy painting with a brush that is not too realistic, because that’s what drama can do,” he said. “We have cameras for verisimilitude and for likeness.”

Morgan is known — and oft chided — for mixing research and invention, looking for an underlying dramatic truth rather than pure accuracy. As with “The Crown,” he turned to a flock of advisers, this time Russian ones, for “Patriots.” He said he wanted to be careful not to demonize Russia. And he spent time with people who were close to Berezovsky.

He traces the rise and fall of Berezovsky (Michael Stuhlbarg), a math prodigy — “a golden child,” as a teacher calls him in the play — who built a fortune in cars, oil and TV and became a political power. He even had his own exclusive private club in Moscow.

“If there was a rock star of that era,” Morgan said, “if there was an iconic character who most typified the indulgence, the excess, in a sense the lawlessness of oligarchy, it would be him. I was interested in somebody that everybody felt was magnetic.”

Nina L. Khrushcheva, a professor of international affairs at the New School in Manhattan and Nikita S. Khrushchev’s great-granddaughter, was one of Morgan’s advisers on Russian history. Sitting with us, she offered her gloss on Berezovsky: “He’s the King Lear. He’s the most tragic figure you can imagine.”

Berezovsky blithely bribed and plundered. One security official told my colleague Steven Lee Myers for his biography of Putin, “The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin,” that Berezovsky divided people into two categories: “A condom in its packaging and a condom that has been used.” Once in power, Putin, who had been Berezovsky’s protégé, checked the power of oligarchs, including him. And Berezovsky came to see Putin as a killer who was snuffing out reforms implemented by Boris Yeltsin.

“The thing that sent me straight to my laptop, as it were,” Morgan told me, “was the tragedy of Berezovsky, something about having all those ideals and then being shattered and outmaneuvered.”

Khrushcheva interjected dryly: “Berezovsky and ideals. There’s a little bit of a stretch, right?”

Morgan defended his antihero: “The thing that Boris had to take to his grave is that he weaponized Putin through his own transgressions, being so voraciously greedy, stealing from the Russian state.” Once Putin got to the top and clamped down on the oligarchs, Berezovsky, stripped of power, became “a reluctant revolutionary.”

Other historic figures are brought into the mix. There is Alexander Litvinenko (Alex Hurt), who worked for the federal security service and investigated the bombing of Berezovsky’s car in 1994, which left his chauffeur decapitated. He grew close to Berezovsky, became disillusioned with Putin and defected to Britain, where, in 2006, he was poisoned with polonium-210, a radioactive isotope, and died.

Then there is the luxe oligarch Roman Abramovich (Luke Thallon), described as “the kid” when Berezovsky first meets him in the play and agrees to go into the oil business with him and become his protector. They too fall out, and in 2011 Berezovsky sues Abramovich in London, seeking billions, and loses. The judge calls Berezovsky “an unimpressive and inherently unreliable witness who regarded truth as transitory.”

Sonia Friedman, the play’s producer, said that while Morgan had initially set out to write the story of “Boris as a kingmaker,” he made Putin more central because “as the play was developing, the world was changing around the play.”

Read the rest of the article here. 

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