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.