Faithful Ruslan: The Story of a Guard Dog
Belgrade theatre, Coventry; at Citizens theatre, Glasgow until 7 Oct
All is grey, wind howls, light is dim: design, sound and music suggest boundless, cruel space. The setting is a labour camp in Stalin’s Soviet Union, where Ruslan is a guard dog, faithful to his guard Master and to the service (the staff who run the gulag). The action of Helena KautHowson’s episodic play, adapted from an allegorical novel by Georgi Vladimov, switches between Ruslan’s rigidly structured past (the time of training) and his confusing present (the time of learning). The performance opens on the transition between the two.
Sirens blare. Stalin is dead. The gulag is closed. All are “free”. Two main questions emerge: can repression destroy the spirit; can love and hope revive it? Ruslan, liberated by the Master he worships, cannot free himself from service rules. He assigns himself the task of guarding a former prisoner, in the hope of one day returning him to the camp, where he believes they both belong. This Shabby Man (Paul Brendan) cannot return to the person he was before the gulag reshaped him; like so many others, he barely survives in the nearest town. The play, similarly, struggles to free the story from its narrative origin: its dramatic dynamics ebb and flow.
Some of the production’s great strengths are also it weakness. Ruslan, embodied with almost mystical intensity by Max Keeble, is so convincing that his spoken thoughts (delivered both by himself and other members of the cast) seem an imposition on his animal identity; too incongruously human. Animals are so vividly realised by the actors (movement direction by Marcello Magni) that human characters seem to lack flesh by comparison.
These things said, Kaut-Howson’s production (she also directs) is the product of a finely honed vision. Her 13-strong ensemble create arresting images, including: a horrific “freezeframe” of prisoners pressure-hosed in temperatures of -44C; a pack of dogs racing towards the auditorium. Faithful Ruslan offers no easy answers but a haunting experience.
Martin Donaghy (Master) with Max Keeble, who embodies Ruslan the guard dog ‘with almost mystical intensity’.