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'The Crown' creator Peter Morgan tackles Putin's Rise to Power in new play 'Patriots'

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

I'm Mary Louise Kelly in New York - actually just around the corner from Broadway. We are about to walk into the Barrymore Theater to see Peter Morgan's play "Patriots." Now "Patriots" is about the fall of the Soviet Union, the many oligarchs who profited off that fall and the rise of a young, not particularly promising-seeming apparatchik by the name of Vladimir Putin.

Inside, the action onstage opens in a blingy post-perestroika bar, then hurdles to the corridors of the Kremlin and to reputations and great fortunes that are being made and destroyed. Among them, the fortune of Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, as played here by Michael Stuhlbarg.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "PATRIOTS")

MICHAEL STUHLBARG: (As Boris Berezovsky) Am I [expletive] dreaming? Hmm? Am I really being lectured on morality by a KGB hack?

KELLY: Berezovsky helped launch the political career of Vladimir Putin.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "PATRIOTS" )

WILL KEEN: (As Vladimir Putin) A country cannot be run by businessmen. Social policy cannot be determined by businessmen. Foreign policy cannot be determined by businessmen.

STUHLBARG: (As Boris Berezovsky) By whom then - politicians? Don't make me laugh. When was the last time you saw a politician you truly respect anywhere?

(LAUGHTER)

STUHLBARG: (As Boris Berezovsky) Never.

KELLY: The play, as you heard, is the creation of Peter Morgan, who may be most familiar to Americans as the creator and writer of the TV hit "The Crown." We've invited him to our studio in New York to tell us why he has turned his attention to Russia. Peter Morgan, welcome.

PETER MORGAN: Thank you.

KELLY: So your task as the person writing this drama is to take us, your audience, along, and in a mere two hours, make real the transformation from this deputy mayor in a cheap suit - at one point, he's moonlighting as a taxi driver - to the Putin we know today. How hard was that? How did you approach it?

MORGAN: Well, actually to the Putin we know in 2013.

KELLY: Yes.

MORGAN: I think the Putin...

KELLY: But who was much closer to the Putin we know today in terms of...

MORGAN: Well...

KELLY: ...Power and...

MORGAN: ...Well on the way.

KELLY: ...Ruthlessness.

MORGAN: Yes, well on the way. But I do think the Putin of today is a different person to the Putin of 2013. The word that always comes to me is a paint chart - you know, where you go from the lighter beige all the way to the dark brown, and you have many, many different shades on the way. And for me, the steps of Putin - this is where Putinologists (ph) sit and hotly dispute how much of the Putin of today was there already visible in the '90s or, you know, when he was this deputy mayor.

And I look at video footage of him and I look at the deference that he showed to Sobchak. And Sobchak was so clearly the alpha - the mayor of St. Petersburg at the time - so charismatic. And Putin was so obviously a - you know, a No. 2 - if not a No. 2, then a No. 4 - very differential, very sheepish. Just his whole body language is so different from his body language today. And that started in the 2000s - probably after 2004 or 2008. By that point, there was a real swagger...

KELLY: Yeah.

MORGAN: ... And a confidence.

KELLY: Yeah. And you see that on stage.

MORGAN: Yeah. Yeah.

KELLY: Yeah.

MORGAN: We chart his evolution through tailoring. There are, I think, six or eight different suits that Putin wears during the course of the play. And we go from really truly Soviet-era manmade fabrics (laughter), all the way to the finest. You know, by the end his suits are really quite natty.

KELLY: Yeah. There's a scene in those early days where Boris Berezovsky is trying to bribe Putin with a new car.

MORGAN: With anything.

KELLY: With anything - but the cars are what they focus on. He's dangling a new Lada, and then he has to up the stakes to a new Mercedes. And there's a great back-and-forth where Putin's saying, I don't take bribes. And Berezovsky says, are you even Russian? (Laughter) Like, I'm curious for you - you're clearly not Russian - how did you get inside the Russian psyche, trying to write like that?

MORGAN: Well, I - you know, I want to put in immediate disclaimers. I do my best. You know, you just use your imagination and do your best. And obviously, I know - I have Russian friends in my circle, but I also read. And I've been to Russia. But I still wouldn't make any claim to being, in any form, an expert. I - both politically and culturally, I wouldn't claim to be an expert.

KELLY: But you've written a play about what it means to be a Russian patriot and different views on that. Is there a common thread that patriotism at some point - the way you think about it, the way you feel about it - might transcend nationality?

MORGAN: I think - look, I think when Russia fell apart in the '90s, you know, it had an enormous both economic but also psychological breakdown. And it did break down. And when you have nothing but rubble left of a great culture, it's hard for us to understand - from the West - the degree to which society had sort of collapsed and the economy had collapsed and people's confidence had collapsed. People are going to have strong ideas for how to rebuild that. And those ideas are necessarily patriotic. If people love their country and want to restore their country to some form of former glory - and no one can be in any doubt about the fact that Russia is one of the great powers with a great history and a great culture. What intrigued me was that these people would all refer to themselves as patriots.

KELLY: So the play is in two acts. Something happens in the interval in between because by the time we open act two, the power dynamic between these two men has completely shifted. It opens with the scene, Berezovsky shows up at the Kremlin. He's confronting Vladimir Putin. And you can see that their relationship has completely shifted. What happens? .

MORGAN: The truth is probably Berezovsky was - having been the first to identify Putin as a potential successor to Boris Yeltsin and someone who he felt he could control - having been the first to see him and identify him, Boris was quite possibly the last to notice that there was more to this man than met the eye.

KELLY: Some of the characters you're dealing with are so iconic. We know what Putin looks like. We know what Boris Yeltsin looks like. Is that challenging to try to find a way to bring those characters to life as humans on a stage and not the caricature we're used to seeing in the headlines?

MORGAN: Well, I mean, a lot of the credit for that has to go to Will Keen, in particular - the actor playing Putin. I'm not remotely interested in the cartoon version. And by that, I don't mean - I mean in the political cartoon, not the Disney...

KELLY: KGB thug cartoon?

MORGAN: ...Cartoon.

KELLY: Yeah.

MORGAN: No, yeah. But even just in terms of cartoonized (ph) portrayals of politicians, which is, of course, what we're used to - we're used to either facts being reported in newspapers or at least opinions being reported in newspapers. But in terms of our understanding of them, in the U.K., as well, satire is often the way we do it and through this - sketched cartoons.

And to actually try and inhabit - you know, some people would say that to try and present Putin in any kind of human way at the moment is sacrilegious and an offense to the memory of the people. But I don't take that view. I think that trying to understand people as human beings is a dramatist's responsibility. And to try and explain why certain human interactions have changed the course of history and why and how they have done that is to explore, you know - historians can go one way and dramatists can go another, and I think we can all coexist, you know?

KELLY: Peter Morgan - his play "Patriots" is on Broadway now. Peter Morgan, thank you.

MORGAN: Pleasure pleasure, pleasure, pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF VLADIMIR VYSOTSKY SONG, "SONG ABOUT A FRIEND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.

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