Tag Archives: Helena Kaut-Howson

A Dog Without Purpose

FAITHFUL RUSLAN

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 5th September, 2017

 

If George Orwell had written Lassie Come Home it might have turned out something like this: heavy with political allegory and mired in the harshness of life.  Based on a cult novel by Georgi Vladimov, Faithful Ruslan is the story of a guard dog, made redundant by the closure of his gulag.  This is no cosy, heart-warming Greyfriars Bobby – Ruslan is so conditioned by his training, he can’t forego the old regime and would rather suffer and starve than accept food or a helping hand from a stranger.

Max Keeble features as Ruslan in a remarkable display of physicality.  He comes across as a man-dog, his movements and reactions utterly credible.  Other members of the cast crop up as narrators of Ruslan’s thoughts, their anthropomorphic accounts at odds with the canine qualities of Keeble’s performance.  Ruslan’s thoughts give us a view of the action no dog would ever have, speaking of things dogs can’t conceptualise.  If ever you’ve heard someone banging on about a dog’s birthday, you’ll get the idea.

Helena Kaut-Howson has adapted the novel and directs this production with a sharp eye and vigour, putting her cast through a regimen as they become not just dogs and other humans but swinging doors and props for scenic items.  It’s a relentless barrage of ideas, the vast majority of them extremely effective.  (There’s an ill-advised rap quality to one bit of narration about a tractor but I’ll gloss over that!)

Martin Donaghy is Ruslan’s cruel and treacherous Master, an ostensible villain, but of course, it’s the system that’s to blame, here called The Service.  Paul Brendan brings a down-to-earth touch of humour to proceedings as the Shabby Man, who crosses Ruslan’s path.  Isabelle Joss appears as Stiura, Shabby Man’s lady friend who has nightmares about being gangraped by a long line of prisoners.  You see, it’s not just about man’s slavery and exploitation of animals but the way humans treat each other.  Another standout is Hunter Bishop as an energetic and enthusiastic Instructor for the Service dogs who ends up barking mad himself.

There is much to appreciate in this ensemble piece, where the physicality of the performers is enhanced by lighting effects that bring colour to this grim, grey world. Projections of scene captions add to the epic theatre feel.  For this stage adaptation, the story is set as a play-within-a-play, performed by the inmates of a corrective facility on the eve of the centenary of the Russian revolution… All I can say is, that corrective facility has one hell of a sophisticated drama society.

You come out impressed by the form but depressed by the content.  There is nothing uplifting, no ray of light.  The conclusion seems to be that if you’re drowned as a puppy, you’re one of the lucky ones.

Grim, largely unpleasant but compellingly told – it’s going to take a lot of vodka to get the taste out of my mouth.

Max Keeble in Faithful Ruslan - Credit Robert Day

Doggy style: Max Keeble as Ruslan (Photo: Robert Day)

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Old desire doth in his death bed lie

A TENDER THING
Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 4th October, 2012


What if Romeo and Juliet hadn’t topped themselves? What if they had a long and happy life together? Ben Power’s new play re-invents the tale of the star-cross’d lovers, using Shakespeare’s words. We meet the couple at the end of a long and happy marriage but tragedy stalks them. Juliet has a debilitating and terminal illness. Parting is not only a sweet sorrow but a creeping inevitability.

At first, the play seems a bit of a gimmick. With the script re-mixed, I was distracted by trying to place the lines from the original: which scene is that speech from? Who speaks those lines in the original? But, as the relationship between the two characters is revealed, I became able to sit back and take the play at face value.

Richard McCabe’s Romeo is a lovable old duffer. His raincoat makes him a bit like Graham Lister from Vic & Bob’s Fantasy Island. Beneath that, he sports a brown woollen suit, which, along with his hair and specs, adds to his nutty professor appearance. He shows people on the front row a photograph in his wallet and takes us back to a time before Juliet became bedridden with illness to a time when they would go dancing.

Kathryn Hunter’s Juliet is a bright-eyed little thing, retaining a girlish sense of fun in her later years. Hunter uses her remarkable physicality as a performer to portray Juliet’s decline. Their dancing becomes the daily routine of the carer and the cared-for; the actions speak at least as loudly as the famous words.

Lines like “I have forgot why I did call thee back” take on a new significance as Juliet begins to wane. She reveals, using a speech of the Nurse’s, that they had and lost a child. This speech is later repeated as Juliet succumbs to dementia and delirium. Hunter’s performance is powerful and striking, matched by McCabe’s patient and doting husband, his frustration and his anger.

They agree that when she is too far gone, he will assist her suicide. Here the herbs and the potion of the original come into (the) play. The morality of their decision and the action taken is not an issue. This is shown to be a private matter, an arrangement between two loved ones, without the brouhaha you would get in an issue-based drama.

Director Helena Kaut-Howson dilutes the encroaching misery with moments of beauty, using music by John Woolf and movement direction by Jane Gibson: withered Juliet springs, in her imagination, from her wheelchair and dances around, full of vigour and life – in her mind at least.

Curiously, the play is depressing and uplifting, often in the same moment. It is grim and heart-warming. It shows there is a kind of plasticity to Shakespeare; you can bend him in order to shed new light on the human condition. The vaguely seashore setting, with only a chair or two and a free-standing door, indicate this is happening nowhere in particular but anywhere and everywhere. This is not a tragedy about a particular couple in a particular set of circumstances. This is the more general tragedy of our mortality. We reach old age if we’re lucky. If we have someone with whom to share our declining years, we are luckier still. But the inevitability of death, that irresistible force of nature – here symbolised by video footage of the sea – is coming for us all.