FAITHFUL RUSLAN, GRIGORIJ VLADIMOV, 2017
Joyce Mac Millan, The Newsroom
It’s said that when Georgi Vladimov’s novella Faithful Ruslan was first circulated in samizdat in the Soviet Union of the 1970s, readers saw it as an allegorical story about the fate of the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin in 1956. Set in Siberia during the liberalisation that followed Stalin’s death, it tells the story of a faithful prison-camp guard dog so strictly trained that when the camp is closed, and his adored master – a camp corporal – spares his life but tells him to get lost, he simply refuses to accept the change, rejecting all offers of food, trying to stick to the old rules, and searching everywhere for his worthless master.
To say that the story ends badly is an understatement; it is a litany of terrible suffering, not without some grim humour, but all too true to the tales of unendurable cold, hunger and cruelty that emerged from the European prison-camp history of the 20th century, and from the societies that gave birth to it. Yet in Helena Kaut-Howson’s new adaptation – a co-production with the Belgrade, Coventry and KP Productions, which Kaut-Howson also directs – the story acquires a new, post-human inflection for the 21st century, beginning to look less like an allegory, and more like a direct piece of agitprop against the abuse of animals down the ages; not least because both Vladimov and Kaut-Howson go to some lengths to explore the ways in which Ruslan is not human, but a member of another species entirely.
In Pawel Dobrzycki’s design – with movement by Marcello Magni and music and sound by Boleslaw Rawski – the show becomes a memorable, brutal symphony in bleak greys and blues, its cast of 13 alternating between dog life and human life at the flick of a tiny costume-change; Max Keeble’s performance as Ruslan is truly heart-rending, Martin Donaghy’s as his callow young master downright chilling. And although Kaut-Howson’s adaptation never quite finds a way fully to dramatise Ruslan’s story rather than offering a powerful illustrated narrative – and sometimes loses pace and impetus as a result – Faithful Ruslan remains a harrowing, thought-provoking, and beautifully presented show, not only about man’s inhumanity to man, but about our even greater – and sometimes almost unbearable – cruelty to the other creatures with whom we share this planet