Writer and director: Helena Kaut-Howson
Reviewer: Harriet Brace
In a world in which narrowing freedom is a sad and biting reality, the staging of a play about the legacy of an autocratic regime is both timely and terrifying.
Faithful Ruslan is based on real-life events in recent history – the period following Josef Stalin’s death in 1953 when the ‘gulag’ prison camps of his autocratic regime were finally liberated.
Told through the eyes of a loyal and conflicted guard dog, it not only explores a truly dark period in history from a unique perspective, but also investigates what happens when rules change and those who adhere to the old ways are forced to adapt, or die.
Faithful Ruslan’s cast of 13 versatile actors demonstrate their calibre from the moment the blinding searchlight-style lights go up, marching as one unit downstage first as guards, then snarling military dogs, and finally as cowering prisoners. As their orders are barked from a cold, anonymous speaker the speed at which they transition increases – a poignant reminder of just how quickly fortunes can change, with devastating consequences.
As the action switches between Ruslan’s ‘new order’ and the “harsh experience” of his early life and training, the full extent of his conditioning is revealed. Harrowing scenes of violence, devastating fear, discord and revenge appear as a series of flashbacks, with Ruslan’s black and white belief system providing a child-like perspective that makes it all the more raw.
The power of the piece relies on Max Keeble’s performance as the titular Ruslan, who remains in canine character throughout and performs the entirety of the play’s movement on all four limbs. He masters it.
While the company’s movements are angular and precise, Keeble’s are fluid and feel innate – a reminder that Ruslan is inherently wild despite his attempted reprogramming. He expresses in whimpers and low, guttural sounds that are expertly studied, and every twitch of muscle from nose to toe is carefully choreographed.
He is supported by a small but very mighty cast – including Citz alumni Ewan Somers (Travels with My Aunt), Camrie Palmer (Blackbird) and Martin Donaghy (Rum and Vodka, Hamlet) – who turn their talents to characters from sadistic soldiers to traumatised civilians, and even farmyard animals. Mark Jax is particularly chilling as the Chief Master, his steely gravitas reinforced with every softly-spoken threat and his calm disregard for human – and animal – life.
Pawel Dobrzycki’s set of stark grey with imposing high walls and exposed materials combined with bright white lighting and stomach-plunging black-outs underlines the quiet dread that pervades the production. Boleslaw Rawski and Martyn Davies’ music and sound are mournful and haunting; the moon moans, the wind cries and screams. There’s also a desperate energy in Marcello Magni’s choreography that lends itself to the spontaneous escape attempts and violent betrayals that happen when hope is so mercilessly extinguished.
With restrictions on personal freedom going on across the globe, and awareness of atrocity just the click of button or flick of a screen away, there’s arguably a growing appetite for political theatre.
Faithful Ruslan grapples with issues that we all think are in the past but which are constantly represented in contemporary events. When viewed through the lens of history they elicit both terror and excitement – something Ruslan himself experiences as he adheres to “duty”. Faithful Ruslan is captivating and important – if uncomfortable – viewing.
Runs until 7 October 2017 | Image: Contributed