A play about a famous Russian poet who lived through, and was at the heart of, the Stalinist regime opens up a wealth of opportunity to explore and interrogate a thrilling and tragic figure. Sadly, Stray Dogs, making its premiere at the Park Theatre fails to deliver on what could have been a really strong piece of theatre.
Anna Akhmatova is widely regarded as one of the most significant Russian poets of the 20th century. A combination of the war and Soviet regime means that much of what was written about her life no longer exists, and so playwright Olivia Olsen, who also stars as Anna Akhmatova, has had the opportunity to use a great deal of artistic license in the portrayal of the character, to the point where history has all but been re-written.
While Akhmatova mourns the death of her husband, murdered by the secret police, she visits her son, Lev in the Gulag, the implication is that Lev is innocent of any crime and the punishment is more directed towards Anna. The man responsible is Stalin (Ian Redford), he uses her son to control her so that she will write poetry for him and speak to the Russian people on the radio.
The arrival of Isaiah Berlin (Ben Porter) offers both Anna and Lev the chance of escape, but it’s not a choice that Anna feels she can make. And this is where the production struggles, because it seems to assume that the audience already has an in-depth knowledge of the central character, when Anna sits down to write ‘Requiem’ it will only have an impact on anyone who already knows the significance of that work. Anna’s decision not to leave Russia is drawn out in an overly long and often repetitive scene, that does nothing to further aid the audiences understanding of her motivations.
The Stalin character certainly exhibits controlling power, but it’s a little too much Lord Sugar in the Apprentice Boardroom (replete with bad jokes) than a violent dictator. There’s a great deal of shouting, but with little or no emotion behind it. We’re supposed to know that Akhmatova and Berlin were lovers, but there’s only the slightest hint this was the case, and even if it had been clearer, I’m not sure anyone would have cared.
Even in the small space of Park 90, Director Robin Herford struggles to fill the stage. Too often the lights go down on a scene and we are left waiting as an actor sheepishly exits from the opposite point to where they were standing. This problem could have perhaps been avoided by choosing not to stage Stray Dogs in traverse, and could have also eliminated the need for actors to repeatedly wave their hands above the front row of the audience, opening and closing curtains that were not there.
The traverse staging did offer some benefit, when yet another long scene ran on past it’s natural conclusion, I was able to examine the faces opposite and determine that I wasn’t the only person struggling to stay connected to the narrative.
For avid fans of 20th century Russian poets, this may be an interesting insight to the life of one of the greatest women of the era. But, for the rest of us, Stray Dogs comes across as a confusing and often pointless exercise. The characters lack depth, and the plot doesn’t give the audience enough to keep them fully engaged.