FAITHFUL RUSLAN, GRIGORIJ VLADIMOV, 2017
Michael Billington, The Guardian
Helena Kaut-Howson is one of our most innovative theatre-makers. She has now adapted and directed this Orwellian political allegory by Georgi Vladimov, first published in West Germany in 1975 and translated by Michael Glenny. Giving us a dog’s-eye-view of the Soviet system, it is staged with tremendous physical bravura but fails to sustain the narrative momentum of its gripping first half.
The action is seen from the perspective of Ruslan, a dedicated guard dog conditioned to accept the institutional horrors of Stalin’s gulags. When they are dismantled in 1956, the majority of his fellow canines are shot but Ruslan survives and remains doggedly loyal to his former master. Even when shunted into the care of an ex-prisoner, known as Shabby Man, Ruslan treats him as if he were still a suspected convict. Aware of the old order’s cruelties yet pining for its restoration, Ruslan ultimately pays the price for his fidelity.
It’s an ingenious fable that makes a number of sharp points about the difficulty of living with the reversals of political power battles: Ruslan becomes a potent symbol of Soviet citizens trained to accept Stalin’s edicts with blind faith and unable, after Khrushchev’s denunciation of the former leader, to adjust to the new reality. But just when you are getting involved in the problems faced by Ruslan and his new owner, incarcerated as a repatriated prisoner-of-war, the story laboriously backtracks to recreate the nightmare of the labour camps.
The idea that the story is being told by a group of contemporary Siberian convicts is also never followed through. What we do get, however, is an amazingly disciplined piece of physical theatre in which, unsurprisingly since Marcello Magni is the movement director, you can detect the influence of Complicité: when the actors evoke the impact of a passing train through their juddering bodies, I was reminded of that company’s version of The Visit.
The 13-strong ensemble also switch with consummate ease from playing dogs and chickens to brutal soldiers and their victimised prisoners. Max Keeble, in his professional debut, is outstanding as Ruslan; and there is striking work from Martin Donaghy as his master, Paul Brendan as his vodka-swilling new owner and Isabelle Joss as a haunted landlady. Even if Solzhenitsyn is the ultimate guide to the horrors of the gulag, the piece is worth seeing for the dazzling expertise of its actors.