A Very Expensive Poison - New Theatre (NSW)
Reviewed by Juliana Payne
A New Theatre Production
Season: 15 August - 16 September 2023
- A truly filmic experience on this small stage, whirling us into a tornado of flash-backs and flash-forwards, with fast paced dialogue, songs, dance, and symbolism -
The play A Very Expensive Poison is a drama. It is a musical. It is a love story. It is a spy thriller. It is a surreal black comedy. And the sum of all these is wonderfully greater than its parts. Director Margaret Thanos and her triple-threat ensemble present a kaleidoscope of a production that tells the well-known but never-seen-like-this-before tragic tale of Alexander Litvinenko. He was one of the first of Putin’s very public, very obvious assassinations, and we know now far from the last.
Litvinenko trod the well-worn path from being part of the modern Russian establishing (an FSB officer), to critic, truth-teller and subsequent dissident on the run. Seeking asylum in the UK (with a horde of compatriots good and bad) he continued his criticism and found his inevitable end in a hospital bed poisoned by polonium – many will have that awful photograph of him (which he authorised) on his deathbed in 2006 ingrained in their memory; I know I do.
A Very Expensive Poison Cast - New Theatre, Newtown. Photos by Bob Seary
The play starts with this moment, and then whirls us into a tornado of flash-backs and flash-forwards, with fast paced dialogue, songs, dance, and symbolism. Director Margaret Thanos’ vision delivered a truly filmic experience on this small stage – we were transported to another time and place. The tech crew who brought her vision to life put on the show of their lives: Diana Paola Alvarado (movement designer) uses the fairly large cast (for the New Theatre) to marvellous effect, creating dynamic streetscapes or wild nightclub scenes to perfection. Aloma Barnes set and costume designer needs a whole review of her own for the evocative set which looked like one of the post explosion scenes from Chernobyl, forming a shell of a decayed concrete bunker which then transformed effortlessly into any backdrop needed from hospital, to home, to café and street. Her use of simple objects like 12 black umbrellas or 3 café tables was outstanding in creating different moods and tones for the audience that perfectly blended with the dialogue and emotions playing out. Sam Cheng’s music and sound and Jasmin Borsovszky’s lighting were wonderfully integrated and simply lifted the whole production out of the ordinary.
"presents a kaleidoscope of a production that tells the well-known but never-seen-like-this-before tragic tale of Alexander Litvinenko
For all the contemporary dirty politics, corruption, lies and murder, at its heart, this play is a love story. Chloe Schwank as Marina and Richard Cox as Alexander are skilled and naturalistic actors who bring a lovely chemistry to the stage that is utterly convincing and heartbreaking. Their dry Russian ironic sensibilities and fatalism mask their emotions but cannot be denied at the end. The ensemble performers were all on point, and a joy to watch. Tasha O’Brien has a challenging part as a malevolently impish Putin who swings on and off stage, with insults and justifications like Francis Underwood used to do in House of Cards. She pulls it off though which reminds us yet again of the dangers of political complacency.
Lucy Prebble’s script is very much what we now expect from her: tight, arch, and character driven. If you loved Succession you’ll probably enjoy this too, but it’s not Succession. It’s Le Carre, Tarantino, Crazy Ex Girlfriend and Dr Zhivago all rolled into one.
For such a terrible story, this production has plenty of black comedy, ironic songs and a fair whack of modern history thrown in, so we don’t forget the past and see repeated it again. Oh wait… it already has. That’s why we should all see this play.
Eliva Angus Evans
Director Margaret Thanos Assistant Director Jess Zlotnick Production Designer Aloma Barnes Composer & Sound Designer Sam Cheng Lighting Designer Jas Borsovszky Movement Director Diana Alvarado Accent Coach Felicity Jurd Singing Coach Georgia Condon Stage Manager & Props Coordinator Lulu Barkell ASM Liam Gascoigne Sound and Lighting Assistant Paris Costume Assistant Sabry Beshir Mohamed LX/SX Operators Georgina Moore, Noah Cohen-Stoddart
Running time: 180 minutes, including interval