The Goold Standard

On average, plays are talky as fuck.

Given the spatial confines of a stage, directors tend to imbue this talking with constant blocking intended to support the meaning of the dialogue. We as audiences almost take for granted just how much actors move in a normal production.

Until a helmer comes around to remind us, through juxtaposition.

Enter: Rupert Goold, a maestro renown for stylishly in your face, unceasing action.

Throughout his production of Peter Morgan’s Patriots, now at the Almeida, the cast storms in and bursts out of scenes in typical Gooldian fashion. But, as soon as they begin speaking, their corporeality slows the heck down. As much as their bodies still inform their performances, their mostly static physiques focus our attention on the words.

In so doing, their interactions ultimately look like a series of slowly evolving tableaus, rooted in the slippery, shifting dynamics on display. The central dynamic: between Putin’s (self-interested?) authoritarianism and Boris Berezovsky’s (self-interested?) authoritarian-adjacent manipulation of democracy, a relational study captured in the set design’s axis; their intersecting approaches to the same question — how to run a country — is embodied in the stage floor’s two perpendicular runways, meeting at a point of intersection.

The play chronicles these meeting points, the spots where their rival but connected perspectives clash. Who prevails, why, and how?

Both Tom Hollander (Berezovsky) and Will Keen (Putin) steep their performances in their skeletal dispositions, a comparing and contrasting that extends to all facets of their being (both worryingly discuss their perceived size, or hulking lack thereof. Also: the mirror! Reflecting the audience! How does what we see alter who we vote for!). Their figures are not set in stone by any means, but instead of traipsing the boards, it’s more about the nature of their meticulously deliberate, considered, and paced presences, a contest of mind and matter adjudicated by the Russian people (and, at least here, the audience).

Can observers deduce who someone is from how they comport themselves, what they say, and how they say it, questions at the heart of democracy’s effectiveness? And how does the manner in which we present ourselves externally alter our fate, determined by and in the eyes of others, both personally and politically on a national/global scale?

The staging’s lack of forceful movement also feels thematically pertinent. How far has Russia really moved forward from its past? As much as we want to believe in the Hegelian promise of progress, do the play’s oppositional factions act like the cross of the stage, heading in reverse directions and thereby holding everyone in a push-pull place, like two sides of the same coin, tugging back and forth, back and forth. Does the center ever truly move?

Dramaturgically, the production’s relative stillness speaks to the play’s modus operandi: the specific plot developments of history are less important than the idea debates undergirding this sociopolitical stasis, the proverbial rooms where it actually happens. The set doubles as a glass-flanked bar (one such room!) for a reason, with Russian letters fragmenting the audience’s reflection of themselves, conveying the role that both language and sight play in coloring a population’s sense of self, expressed in the direction of their votes).

Patriots depicts the powers-that-be standing around conversationally fighting for the future, the stuff power, politics, and influence are made of.

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