Producers Dead Letter Perfect say they want to produce “good stories, well told” and that character “lies at the heart of good stories”. Their latest offering at Park 90, Stray Dogs, certainly fits that description with three very strong conflicting characters battling it out over the power of language.
The story is set in Leningrad, around the time of the Second World War and Anna Akhmatova is a respected and celebrated poet who Joseph Stalin seeks to use to influence the mass population to his dictatorial will. She is offered an escape by an Ex-Russian Jewish philosopher (now acting as a British cultural attaché), Isaiah Berlin but is unable to put the safety of herself and her son Lev, before her love and loyalty to her country and its great musicians and playwrights. It plays out like a tennis match across Stalin’s desk as they fire words at each other in a curious mixture of admiration, distrust and anger with the audience ranged on either side of the traverse stage as spectators to the match.
The huge cultural context of millions of Russians executed by Stalin, the siege of Leningrad by the German troops and the control and censorship of thought adds tension and horror to their encounters.
Author Olivia Olsen plays the poet Anna with a steely, determined look and resolute will, standing up against the bullying Stalin, fighting to save her son’s life but also anxiously trying to stay true to her own morals.
Ian Redford is the overbearing foul-mouthed drunken power-hungry Stalin who appears to have a genuine love of the arts but no compassion for his people as he urges (almost forces) Anna to do a recital to the sisters of Leningrad. He rages “I am the country” while trying to “rearrange history”.
Ben Porter is the sensitive, pragmatic survivor, Isaiah Berlin, trying to persuade Anna to leave and go to Oxford to publish her work.
Robin Hereford directs this excellent trio and despite the wordy, complex, often poetic language, makes sure they hold our interest and attention with good variation of intensity and simple blocking, using the space well so that it easily established their relationships and the locations.
The Stray Dogs was a cabaret club where the intelligentsia and artistes used to meet some twenty five years earlier but it becomes a metaphor for the rounding up and disappearance of those who oppose the totalitarian Stalin ruler, especially for those whose works have “no reference to the ideology of the revolution”. As Stalin has the power to ensure that “from now on you are nothing!”.
It is a chilling story of suppression by ideologically fuelled leaders and you can sense the care taken in each word in the script to tell the story in the right way and reinforce the power of written and spoken word to influence a nation – the Language is the weapon and it is very well used here.
Reviewed by Nick Wayne
FOLLOW WEST END WILMA