At once anachronistic, investigative and deeply morally invested, it’s easy to see a million and one ways in which Lucy Prebble’s A Very Expensive Poison could go deeply wrong. Of course, this makes it even more of a joy to see it done so incredibly right.
Frequently, it kind of annoys me when plays introduce a new visual or thematic technique or element, only to brush it off and move on seconds later and never return to it. Not so in A Very Expensive Poison. Even though it does just that – offers up all kinds of amazing staging and scenography often for less than a minute at a time – it feels more like the Old Vic itself stretching its muscles somehow. Look what it can do. Look what it can be. I suppose it also allows us to look at the stage and take in the narrative, if we have the mental and emotional space left. Personally, I would be content to simply stare at Tom Scutt’s amazing designs for the rest of the evening, or the rest of my life.
For a very large proportion of the stage time, this play feels more like a piece of cinema. The space is used to create locations so effectively that it really does feel like watching actors move around a film set as opposed to a stage. Of course, the story lends itself well to this. The now notorious tale of an ex-KGB insider fleeing to London before suffering from radiation poisoning at the hands of the Russian government borders on the unbelievable, because it is. The old saying goes that it’s better to show than to tell, but I think that this play proves that you really can weave both verbal and visual language together to even greater effect.
Within that, of course, there are moments which I can’t put immediate meaning to. The apparition and dismantling of three enormous puppet-type things representing Soviet politicians confuses me beyond measure, but also visually reminds me of the work of Jan Svankmajer, a Czech filmmaker whose creations were repressed by an earlier iteration of the same regime scrutinised in this play. The likelihood is that this had literally nothing to do with it, but the stylistic influences seem so numerous that it would hardly be surprising.
Although the harrowing story of Marina and Alexander Litvinenko is at the heart of the play, it seems to act more as a catalyst for a moral discussion of what’s worth knowing, what we have a right to know, and who gets to decide what happened. However, Tom Brooke and Myanna Buring are indispensable, bouncing off one another to provide the stable core that this quite slippery play so heavily relies on.
It’s a draining nearly three hours, but more than worthwhile. In its visual and narrative worldbuilding, this is a genuinely brilliant piece of theatre.
A Very Expensive Poison is playing The Old Vic until 5 October. For more information and tickets, visit The Old Vic website.