I can remember all too clearly the footage of Alexander Litvinenko as he lay dying in a hospital bed in 2006 having apparently been poisoned with a lethal dose of polonium-210. In a speech, read out on his behalf, the former Russian security agent, who had been working for MI6 and the Spanish secret service, pointed the finger squarely at president Vladimir Putin and his cronies. Very little is known about the circumstances of his death. We know that he went for tea with two Russian men at a hotel in London but since then the trail has gone cold and an inquest is yet to open.
The scant facts about his life form the basis of 2Magpies’ latest production, The Litvinenko Project which I saw last week as part of neat14. Performed at Edin’s café, this is a piece of site-responsive theatre which made full use of its environment. We are shown to a table by Tom Barnes and Matt Wilks, the duo behind 2Magpies, and told to help ourselves to the pot of green tea on the table – something which that took on a sinister quality that Litvinenko had gone out for tea just before he was murdered.
We are then introduced to Litvinenko the man. We learn that he is a husband to Marina and a father to a young boy called Anatoli. He loves to dance the tango and having lived in London he is acutely aware of the differences between Russian and British cultures, not least the difference in tea drinking customs: the British brew theirs in teapots for a short period of time while the Russians allow theirs to stew in a samovar until it becomes highly concentrated. But his daily routine of eating breakfast with his family is interrupted by an ominous voice repeating over and over again one of things we truly know: “Alexander Litvinenko is going to die.”
What follows is a tremendously energetic yet chilling piece of theatre. Matt and Tom play every role but they draw the audience in, asking them to take on different parts and by the end we were all – quite literally – bound up in this web of intrigue. There was no stage set but the props, which included a raw chicken, a mop and a samovar which doubled as a football trophy, were cleverly used and the dialogue, at times reminiscent of a court case or detective story, was superb. Meanwhile, the public setting also added to the strength of this performance and there was a real feeling that anything could happen. From downstairs I could hear the everyday conversations of the customers drift upwards which contrasted well with the dark nature of the play. Indeed, it made me think of all the people in London who had no idea that a Cold War-era style murder was being plotted until it was too late.
Just before the play started, Tom told us that The Litvinenko Project had been evolving over a period of around six months and during that time Russia had rarely been out of the news. From the arrest of the politically-charged band Pussy Riot, to the anti-homosexuality laws and the recent invasion of Ukraine, suspicion the West is growing increasingly suspicious of Russia – and The Litvinenko is becoming even more relevant. Let’s hope it is performed again in the near future.