FAITHFUL RUSLAN, GRIGORIJ VLADIMOV, 2017
Mark Brown, Sunday Herald
Georgi Vladimov’s novel Faithful Ruslan: The Story Of A Guard Dog is not an obvious candidate for adaptation to the stage. Set before and immediately after the death of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, it tells the story of the Gulag forced labour camps, and their dissolution, from the perspective of a guard dog.
It takes a special skill, both in performance and design, for an actor to represent an animal without unintended pathos or inadvertent comedy. This three-way co-production (between Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre, the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry and London-based KP Productions), adapted and staged by Polish director Helena Kaut-Howson, avoids the pitfalls brilliantly, delivering the story with tremendous ingenuity and emotional power.
Kaut-Howson is joined by Polish designer Pawel Dobrzycki, Italian movement director (and co-founder of the great, London-based theatre company Complicite) Marcello Magni and Polish composer Boleslaw Rawski. The production they have created combines the bold atmospherics of the great Polish theatre-makers (from Jerzy Grotowski to Tadeusz Kantor and Krzysztof Warlikowski) with the very particular physical training and aesthetics of the French master Jacques Lecoq (at whose school, in Paris, Magni trained).
Max Keeble (a recent graduate from Drama Centre London) gives an outstanding physical and vocal performance as Ruslan, the guard dog whose world is torn asunder when Stalin dies and the Gulag is dissolved. Trained to trust no-one but his now demobilised master, Ruslan is left disorientated and famished by the sudden disappearance of master, prisoners and, the only purpose of his life, The Service.
Played out on Dobrzycki’s fine set, an abstracted Gulag exercise yard, the piece takes us forward, through the dog’s desperate, confused attempts to survive (including a period “guarding” a former prisoner who, foolishly, thinks he has become Ruslan’s new master). We are also taken back to the early days of The Service and the harsh lessons the dog is taught in order to make him perfectly obedient and ferocious in his loyalty.
The cleverly alternative, canine perspective combines with the performances of a superb ensemble to create a stark and memorable evocation of the unrelenting human misery of the Gulag. This is enhanced by Rawski’s excellent, mainly eastern European music (including affecting singing by Camrie Palmer); although an early, entirely incongruous blast of rap music seems badly misjudged.
Reminiscent of the glory days of Scottish touring company Communicado, Faithful Ruslan is a very welcome addition to our theatre’s explorations in European aesthetics.