A Very Expensive Poison at the New Theatre. Pic Bob Seary

The amazing team at the New Theatre has tackled a complex play about a mostly forgotten international drama. They’ve succeeded in bringing back the events surrounding of the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006, and in making it relevant to 2023. 

You enter the theatre and see a bleak but beautiful set. The five curved entrance ways are aesthetically placed across the broad stage. The set is an effective introduction to both a personal story, and a very public story of the poisoning by polonium radiation. 

Marina Litvinenko enters. She is in London, in the time after her husband’s murder. Then we move backwards in time and place, to Russia where Litvinenko first began his crusade to expose the corruption in the government. A foolhardy effort? A personal ethic he couldn’t abandon, even knowing the risks? Then the Litvinenko family escapes to London, believing they are now free from the danger. But, they will find him. 

Who will? Putin, of course. He is played brilliantly by Tasha O’Brien. She (Putin) sits in the frame of one of the set’s curves, discussing Litvinenko’s report on the corruption in the government agencies. The naïve Litvinenko believes his report will result in action. The only action Putin takes is to let the billionaire oligarchs continue to rule. This scene is the best in the play.

The sixteen-person cast play 45 characters. They have perfect timing as they dance, simulate sex and toss café tables around the stage. The café tables have a significance most of us have probably forgotten– the bumbling spies made several failed attempts to get Litvinenko to drink the polonium poison. The ‘bad guys’ actually contaminate four different cafés in London trying to bump off the ‘good guy’. 

The play is about thirty minutes too long. Some of the dancing and party scenes would have been more effective if much shorter. 

The most interesting stagecraft employed is the breaking of the fourth wall as actors speak directly to the audience. This is a very difficult technique but it works in this production. The audience feels involved. The stagecraft that does confuse is the use of the Russian accent. Some characters use it, others don’t.

Marina Litvinenko is played by Chloe Schwank. She succeeds in a complex role. She must speak directly to the audience then switch back to a character, playing an energetic young married woman, then through the years to witness her husband’s’ death. 

Richard Cox plays Litvinenko. He becomes the man in the famous photo of the poisoned Russian lying in the London hospital bed. That image is engrained in the public mind.

Director Margaret Thanos has pulled together a large team of actors and creatives too numerous to name each – costumes, the set, the lighting, the mask designers and more.  The play was written by Lucy Prebble. She also writes for television, the latest being ‘Succession’.

The New Theatre, Newtown, has been producing plays since 1932. It is one of the best spaces in Sydney. The seats are comfortable, the acoustics good, the raking high and the atmosphere in the lobby casual.

The play is three hours long, including the interval.

A VERY EXPENSIVE POISON plays  the New Theatre, 542 King Street, Newtown until the 16th September 2023.

Production photography by Bob Seary.