Meet the playwright

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Helen Lewis interviews A Very Expensive Poison playwright Lucy Prebble.

Did you see the famous picture of the dying Alexander Litvinenko — Sasha — in 2006?

I did. It made me feel disturbed and intrigued and repulsed. Now when I look back I think how canny and also tragic the decision to take that picture was. For Sasha to understand that an image of him, dying, yet not cowed, was what would seed the violent act in national memory, was both wise and terrible.

What surprised you most when researching this story?

For me, it was the haplessness of the assassins. I was flabbergasted by the haplessness of the assassins. And then the realisation of how chaotic and short-sighted and frankly, human, so many political actions are. Grudges, mistakes, personal flaws and the re-telling of accidental events as if intentional are such a common part of government and diplomacy. I was surprised by both the coldness and kindness that [Litvinenko’s wife] Marina received from different members of the UK establishment. All over the place, there’s this mix of shabby behaviour alongside other beautiful, compassionate duty. A sense of what this country is at best and at worst. I was also surprised how many different perspectives I encountered on Sasha himself. And I was very aware of having to make choices about a life as an author, and the power, responsibility and savagery of that. There’s some authoritarian in that.

Why did you decide to have characters address the audience directly? What is the effect of that?

I can’t say I decided. I find it hard to write a play which doesn’t acknowledge that the audience are there. It feels rude. There’s something in direct address that lights up what I like about theatre, and what it can do over and above other artforms. It acknowledges the performance somehow. And that makes it feel less silly to me. It makes me feel both excited, and safe. Like it’s real.

If I called this a polemic play would you find that a compliment or an insult?

I don’t think I would assume you were trying to insult or compliment me. What I would feel is an amused and slightly weary sense of how aggressive my writing can be. I’m fairly conflict-averse in life. But I know when I write from my deepest self it’s desperate, needy, maybe even a bit… strident, to use a perjorative word often reserved for women? I reread it like a bemused mum. Ok, Lucy. Ok. But it’s what comes out.

What was the hardest decision you had to make?

The frame or form of the piece as a whole has been a technical struggle. Who is telling the story and how? There’s a version of this which rips through it like a thriller movie and leaves nuance in its wake. I could never make that satisfying. The only reason to do this play was capturing something truthful about events, reactions, revenge, love. I wanted to find a way to tell the story but keep all the sticking-out quirks that make it actually interesting and true. In a way it’s an anti-thriller. But I must never ever say that.

Is there anything from the true story you desperately wanted to include, but couldn’t make fit?

It’s more the opposite. So much about the story is astoundingly on the nose. For example, I wanted to write something that subtly weaves themes about toxic masculinity around these events and then you learn that Hey Jo’s, the Soho Club the assassins visited after trying to poison Litvinenko, has a massive gold penis decorating its dancefloor. And as a writer you’re almost cursing reality for making it all seem basic.

A Very Expensive Poison is playing until 05 Oct. Tickets from £12

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A Very Expensive Poison