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Review: Faithful Ruslan – The Story of a Guard Dog

Canine capers in a new stage adaptation of Georgi Vladimov’s ironic Russian tale of doggy woe by Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, and Glasgow Citizens Theatre.

Actor Max Keeble as Ruslan

Unlike War Horse this story of one of Josef Stalin’s most notorious Siberian labour camps told through the eyes of a loyal prison guard dog after it’s shut down, is performed entirely by 13 energetic actors –  no puppets, or gadgetry in sight! This is a new stage version of one of the defining dissident books of the post-Stalin era, adapted and directed by Helena Kaut-Howson. She first came across the cult novel just after it was first translated into English by Michael Glenny in 1979.

Abandoned by his Russian Corporal master Ruslan makes it his duty to ‘guard’ freed prisoner ‘Shabby Man’ until his Master returns. Max Keeble as Ruslan (front left) & Paul Brendan as ‘Shabby Man’ (right)

Writer Georgi Vladimov’s Jewish mother was a victim of Stalin’s anti-Semitic policy and had been held for two years in one of the forced labour camps from which he derived the realistic wrenching detail of prison life. B2 is transformed into a stark and austere labour camp – a dirty white wall fronted by a multi-purpose wooden frame, is in turn a prison fence, a chicken coop and a hut. In the open wings, you can see the actors change costume.

Dog fight: Max Keeble and Vinta Morgan

Black-and-white graphics are typed onto the wall marking chapters of Ruslan’s life from Day Zero when The World Turned Upside Down, ie the prison is closed – going back and forth in time as he reminisces of his days ‘in service’ from the traumatic moment he is chosen as a guard dog, and his siblings deliberately drowned. It’s Ruslan’s unquestioning obedience to his ‘godlike’ master, a Corporal in the Russian army that becomes allegorical, like George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Comically the narrator tells us: “He liked words with an “Rrrrr” in it  – and Corporal had two.”

Ruslan and his former Master Martin Donaghy

It’s not the most cheerful of stories with themes of wartime inhumanity and brutal animal cruelty, but it’s darkly funny in parts and as it draws to an end, quite moving. Many members of the audience left close to tears. Watching the ensemble transform themselves into various animals, capturing the nuances of different dog personalities and modes of transport, including a tractor and train, is incredibly entertaining.  Movement director is no other than Olivier award-winning Italian choreographer, Marcello Magni, co-founder of internationally renowned theatre company, Complicite.

Mark Jax as Chief Master

I enjoyed the lively dog training scene, in which acrobatic dog trainer (Hunter Bishop) teaches his young dogs new tricks and a hilarious chicken coop sequence, where the actors in woolly hats cluck ferociously in their wooden coop while hungry Ruslan eyes them up. Although a rap sequence early on feels slightly at odds with the Soviet post-war era it represents. Actors, including Mark Jax, play multiple roles, and sometimes two at a time take it turns to voice Ruslan’s narration.

Max Keeble is superb as the starving, driven and disorientated Ruslan left without purpose and I liked Ewan Somers’ heroic, happy-go-lucky mongrel Treasure – very funny. Human ex-prisoner Shabby Man (Paul Brendan) and village prostitute Stiura (Isabelle Joss) resort to drinking vodka in the middle of the day to escape the depressing futility of it all – you can’t really blame them…Likely to appeal to fans of Russian lit, Soviet war dramas, experimental theatre and animal lovers.

Duration: 2hrs 30mins (including interval). Recommended for ages 14+ Faithful Ruslan – The Story of a Guard Dog, runs in B2, The Belgrade, Coventry until Sat Sept 16,

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