Faith­ful Rus­lan: The Story of a Guard Dog

Bel­grade the­atre, Coven­try; at Cit­i­zens the­atre, Glas­gow un­til 7 Oct

The Observer - The New Review - - DANCE - Clare Bren­nan

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.

Robert Day

Martin Don­aghy (Mas­ter) with Max Kee­ble, who em­bod­ies Rus­lan the guard dog ‘with al­most mys­ti­cal in­ten­sity’.

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