In­ge­nious, emo­tional evo­ca­tion of Stalin’s Gu­lag

Sunday Herald Life - - THEATRE REVIEW - Re­viewed by Mark Brown

Faith­ful Rus­lan CI­TI­ZENS THE­ATRE, GLAS­GOW Un­til Oc­to­ber 7

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.

Pho­to­graph: Robert Day

Martin Don­aghy and Max Kee­ble in Faith­ful Rus­lan

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