Stray Dogs

Olivia Olsen
Dead Letter Perfect in association with Park Theatre
Park Theatre (Park 90)

Ian Redford as Joseph Stalin and Olivia Olsen as Anna Akhmatova Credit: Nick Rutter
Olivia Olsen as Anna Akhmatova and Ben Porter as Isaiah Berlin Credit: Nick Rutter
Olivia Olsen as Anna Akhmatova and Ben Porter as Isaiah Berlin Credit: Nick Rutter
Olivia Olsen as Anna Akhmatova and Ian Redford as Joseph Stalin Credit: Nick Rutter

This is a play about Russian dictator Joseph Stalin, Isaiah Berlin and poet Anna Akhmatova.

The Stray Dog (Бродячая Собака) was the name of a St Petersburg cabaret cafe, the centre of bohemian life where painters, poets, performers, composers and artists of all sorts used to meet in the years leading up to the First World War, its proprietor seeing them as like stray dogs outside polite society. Anna Akhmatova was one of them. Her work was acclaimed but, after the 1917 Revolution and the Civil War, there was a crackdown on such intellectual freedom.

In 1921, Anna's former husband Nikolay Gumilev was executed; from 1925, she was unable publish and her work was attacked for its “bourgeois aesthetic”. She saw friends disappear in Stalin's purges but her poems still remained popular and, in 1940 Stalin (who the previous year had allowed the publication of one book of poems, though it was withdrawn six months later and all stock pulped) sought to use her in his support. By then, her son Lev had been arrested and his treatment and indeed life were used as a pawn to ensure her co-operation.

That is where Olivia Olsen's play, here receiving its première, takes up the story in 1940, presenting a sequence of confrontations with Stalin and meetings with the Russian-born philosopher Isaiah Berlin who held a diplomatic post in the British Embassy in Moscow shortly after the end of the Second World War.

These scenes, though it is not clear in the playing, are not presented chronologically. Berlin first met Anna in November 1945 talking well into the night with her and had two brief meeting in the following year. After the play introduces him, it goes back to the 1939 invasion of Poland. They are not perhaps intended as historical record, but are a dramatic form that provides a mouthpiece for ideological confrontations. Certainly those with Berlin happened, though his version puts others present (including son Lev) and gives different details—were the private meetings with Stalin also real ones?

The dialogue does sometimes sound more like pronouncements than conversation; it is left to the actors to give the characters humanity. Ian Bedford's bullying Stalin manages a glimpse of the human in his memories of his impoverished childhood and his embarrassing attempts at poetry. Writer Olivia Olsen, herself playing Anna, sometimes looking like a rabbit in a car's headlights, has to give a performance for Stalin as well as one for the audience, but there are moments that seem from the heart.

There is a real frisson between her and Ben Porter's Berlin as she hands him a bundle of poems (though it is broken when he starts to read them out loud) and a genuine passion in her broadcast to the women of Leningrad as her city endures the German siege.

Stray Dogs gives a glimpse of the man who expected art to serve the state and considered those such as Shostakovich, Rostropovich and Pasternak as 'his' artists whom he for a time 'protected' provided like Anna they delivered and what it was like for them too.

A writer who relied on inspiration, Anna finds delivering to order very difficult but she is also secretly creating her own verse, her great poem Requiem for instance, and this is a play that will surely make those who don’t already known her work want to investigate it further.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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