First published in The Times, Tuesday September 26 2017
This is not the first time this year that a performer has taken on the role of man’s best friend on the stage at the Citizens. In May, the actor Ewan Somers gave a memorable turn as an amorous Irish wolfhound in a revival of Giles Havergal’s celebrated version of Graham Greene’s Travels with My Aunt.
A mere four months on and another literary adaptation is affording Somers and a dozen of his fellow actors the opportunity to play not only dogs and chickens but also guards and prisoners in a Soviet labour camp. In the opening moments of Helena Kaut-Howson’s production, based on the 1975 allegorical novel by Georgi Vladimov, the dissident writer, we watch the company being put through its paces in a military-style drill, snapping from canine to human and back again in response to barked commands.
Indeed, Kaut-Howson’s show, which charts life in the gulag from the perspective of a guard dog, is at its most impressive in its ensemble sequences, with the director using the entire depth and height of Pawel Dobrzycki’s broad, open stage, encircled by iron pillars and wall bars. Dobrzycki’s murky lighting designs and the dense, wintry soundscape, created by Martyn Davies, accentuate the bleak, brutal atmosphere.
Pic: Robert Day
At the production’s centre is a remarkable performance from Max Keeble as Ruslan, the guard dog so utterly conditioned to camp life that he remains ensnared in his role even after its walls have come down following Stalin’s death. He grows wistful for the good old days of keeping prisoners in their place, pining for Master’s (Martin Donaghy) “splendid, god-like face”.
Keeble doesn’t so much perform as inhabit the twitching, slavering, increasingly deranged hound, so much so that when the actor is called upon to speak, we experience a jolt as the suspension of disbelief is disrupted.
Pic: Robert Day
As in the pre-eminent allegory of the Stalinist era, Orwell’s Animal Farm, there is a surface air of the children’s fable about Vladimov’s work (the translation used in this co-production with the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry is by Michael Glenny). While Kaut-Howson’s production makes clear points about slavish, unthinking loyalty and its dehumanising effect, the material here lacks the brevity and punchy simplicity of Orwell’s satire. This stage version struggles to escape its origins as a novel, being lumbered with an at-times confusing structure and frequently becoming bogged down in exposition.
In the end, despite its undeniable curiosity value and some fine performances, including Donaghy’s pitiless master and Paul Brennan as an institutionalised ex-prisoner, this shaggy dog tale is not quite the sum of its parts.