Reviewed – 15th November 2019
“Conversations meander helplessly. The dialogue is clunky and rarely meaningful; emotions remain unstirred and the characters one dimensional”
Stray Dogs is based on the lives of three fascinating individuals: poet Anna Akhmatova, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, and philosopher Isaiah Berlin. Akhmatova, once banned by the Soviet Union, agrees to use her writing to spread Stalinist ideology in exchange for the freedom of Lev, her imprisoned son. Stalin is not only a powerful dictator, but a frustrated poet who knows that the manipulation of the written word can secure his power better than any force or action could. Berlin, now living in Britain, visits Akhmatova in secret and pleas with her to leave Russia and claim her personal and literary freedom.
Unfortunately, Stray Dogs does not portray these events in a fascinating manner. Heavy and overly ponderous, this two hour show would benefit from an extensive edit, restructure, and refocus. Despite the speeches and poems that hang from the ceiling and the papers that are stuffed into Stalin’s desk drawers, the word does not have the power that it should. Conversations meander helplessly. The dialogue is clunky and rarely meaningful; emotions remain unstirred and the characters one dimensional. The brightest moments are when Akhmatova’s poetry is read aloud. These alone give us a glimpse of what Stalin must have seen to recruit her for such a task.
Of the three, it is Stalin – and I never thought I’d say this – that comes across as the most human. This is thanks to a strong performance from Ian Redford, who nails humorous and horrifying moments alike. He, of all the actors, inhabits his role most fully, and is convincing throughout. Olivia Olsen, playing Anna, feels very much at odds with her role. Her acting style does not quite gel with that of her co-stars, lending the scenes an awkward, jittery rhythm that do not elevate them above their static nature. Ben Porter is not given much to do as Isaiah Berlin, but his warmth does act as a nice contrast to the fury of Redford’s Stalin. And yet he, like Olsen, gives a performance that lacks emotional honesty. Even when receiving news about her imprisoned son, Olsen’s hysterical reaction does not convince – nor does Porter’s tearful insistence that Anna leave Russia or die. From a historical standpoint the stakes could not be higher. The Great Purge and World War Two both coincide with and determine the plot of this play, but as events in themselves they feel about as real and as tangible as the words that Anna cannot bring herself to write.
Above all, this play feels like a missed opportunity to tell a pertinent story about the power of language and art in a time of crisis. With a firm edit this piece could have potential, but as it stands it is difficult to understand, engage with, or enjoy.
Reviewed by Harriet Corke
Park Theatre until 7th December
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: