Ivan and the Dogs
A broken society nailed on the page by Hattie Naylor, fifty-eight pages, seventy uninterrupted minutes, but what a reach. Told plainly in the simple sentence structure of a child, Ivan and the Dogs is an urban Russian fairy story that penetrates Moscow's, and indeed Russia's, substratum at the end of the post-glasnost post-perestroika 1990s.
In Kipling's Mowgli fashion, this is based on the true story of Ivan Mishukov, who left home at the age of four, and survived for two years (1996-98) on the menacing streets of Moscow with a pack of dogs. Against all odds and the severe Russian winter, this innocent soul survived because of his innate kindness, which earned him the trust of the dogs.
A grim bad fairy tale, but recounted in such a heartfelt and heart-warming way by Polish actor Rad Kaim (a lovely performance from the winner of best newcomer in 2004 in Poland's equivalent of the Oscars), whose open trusting face draws one into his orbit, that one is uplifted and charmed by the boy's spirit. Emotions ebb and flow across his expressive face as the images of ghostly dogs flicker across the screen alongside him. One wants to reach out to him.
'Restructuring' makes for hard times for many, and hard times breed cruelty. Lack of food means getting rid of mouths to feed, first the dogs, then the children. Aged four, Ivan could no longer stand the beatings from his drunken stepfather with his 'dragon breath', nor his mother's alcoholic fecklessness. Armed with a packet of crisps, dry bread and pickles, he walks out into the night.
A unique story, and yet not so unique in Russia's history - the famine of the 1930s, the thousands of post-world-war-two orphaned children roaming the streets and backwoods, the callousness, the stoicism, the transcendent Russian soul.
Two million homeless children on the streets after the collapse of the Russian economy - Ivan's story, a story no four-year old should ever experience, a little sanitised here, with touches of heart-easing humour, must stand for them all.
After the fall of Communism it was survival of the fittest, and we know how the oligarchs plundered Russia's wealth. Ivan talks of fat men with gold rings and their thin blonde, always blonde, girlfriends. He learns where food is thrown away - from the new restaurants springing up in Moscow. But it is at the back door of one of these that he and the dogs are tricked and caught. Trapped by lies and hunger.
The dogs are killed - his favourite Belka, the white one, the cautious leader of the pack, all of them. He is sent to an orphanage - 'those were the worst days' - again bully boys and surly commands. He gets adopted. The woman has a dog. An idiot pampered dog, but they gel when the dog sees off a burglar. He sees Belka in his eyes.
Ivan learns one big thing - that humans lie and dogs never do. The kindness of dogs not of strangers. Trust and betrayal... The strangers are the ones who betray: the unkind kiosk women, the doormen, the militia, the alcoholic homeless, the bomzhi (bez opredelyonnovo mesta zhitelstva, an acronym for without a definite place of residence, of no fixed abode), the glue-sniffing street ruffians.
But a saintly glow lights up the boy's face when he talks about the dogs. With them he was happy. God has counted them up to heaven. He has the soul of a dog. He knows that now. And the moral is that we must share and share alike as he did with his dogs.
Effective and affective, the unadorned storytelling keeps the horrors at bay: it's the indomitable boy's pure heart that lulls us, as he is lulled by a lullaby of the little grey wolf, who will take him into the forest, a good forest, a Russian wonderland of snow.
Beautifully written, modulated, acted, staged, realised, a radio play transposed to the stage, with sound effects and snatches of authentic Russian voices (soundscape created by Dan Jones who co-directed Kursk at the Young Vic), sensitive direction by Ellen McDougall, Naomi Wilkinson's design, Katherine Williams' lighting and Joanna Croll's movement designs (white and black backlit box, a confined space in which the boy sits, crouches, swings, turns feral), it presents us with a succinct snapshot of a peculiar era that is still with us.
ATC have just announced that Ramin Gray is to be its new artistic director, taking over from Bijan Sheibani. With his track record at the Royal Court, it will be in good hands.
Till 6th November, then Bristol Old Vic (16th - 20th November)
Reviewer: Vera Liber