The Litvinenko Project

Go ahead and sip the gunpowder green tea poured into dainty cups by Tom Barnes and Matt Wilks, the handsome, engaging young performers of The Litvinenko Project. The more you hear about the cups of that tea that killed Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006, however, the bitterer the stuff will taste. His was spiked with polonium, a deadly radioactive substance.

It’s as if we’re all being asked to read the tea leaves of this baffling and fascinating true-life murder mystery.

Who put it in the tea he drank at the Millennium Hotel’s Pine Bar (or possibly somewhere else), and who ordered them to do it, is still undetermined. Years of official inquiries have gone nowhere. (The Guardian has maintained thebest timeline, if you want to read up before seeing this show. You should do both.)

Staged in Summerhall’s café, with the audience seated in twos and threes at individual tables, each set with tea service, The Litvinenko Project is a smart and provocative hour that offers a detailed, dramatized timeline of events leading up to the death of the former Russian secret service agent. Barnes and Wilks deliver the material as experts, having been involved with this piece of devised theatre since they were political science students at University of Nottingham, where the show was created in 2013 by 2Magpies Theatre, based on a concept by Gordon Ramsay (not the chef).

In clear, unfussy dialogue, the actors deliver the facts of Litvinenko’s last days of life – where he went and who he met on that fateful November 6, 2006. Tea with a couple of shady Russians (who had to have been the assassins), sushi with an Italian, back to the Pine Bar to see the Russians again. That same night, Litvinenko fell ill. Three weeks later he was dead of radioactive poisoning. From his deathbed, he named the chief suspect: Russian President Vladimir Putin.

As they tick through the little rituals of tea pouring – “I’ll be babushka,” says Wilks as he fills another cup for Barnes – the actors take turns playing the key figures in the ongoing saga of who poisoned Litvinenko and why. Part of their performance is staged as a dance, with a mop as partner to each of the men. Donning white hazmat suits, gas masks and latex gloves, they go through a silent preparation of a traditional Russian dish called “chicken on a bottle.” The raw pink bird standing atop the table suddenly seems to symbolize Litvinenko himself, famously pictured lying gaunt and hairless after suffering the excruciating effects of the polonium.

When Wilks asks an audience member to peer into a cup and describe what can be seen in the residue, it’s as if we’re all being asked to read the tea leaves of this baffling and fascinating true-life murder mystery.

Reviews by Elaine Liner

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Performances

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The Blurb

Eight years after Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko fatally drank poisoned tea in London, the public inquiry into his death has thrust him back into the spotlight in 2015. 2Magpies don’t know who killed him, but they do know what he liked to eat, what he liked to drink, and how he liked to dance; so this is precisely what they’re going to do. Join 2Magpies in Summerhall café (strictly limited capacity) as they piece together the day Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in an aromatic blend of possibility, actuality, fact, and fiction. They will even provide the tea.