Stray Dogs – Park Theatre, London

Writer: Olivia Olsen

Director: Robin Herford

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Stray Dogs is a serious, old-fashioned play about art, morals and the politics of poetry. Auden famously said that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’, but this play about Stalin and poet Anna Akhmatova suggests that poetry has the potential to change the world, for better and for worse.

Written by Olivia Olsen, this three-hander is very talky, but is also full of ideas. It’s full of history, too, with the story seemingly encompassing the late 1920s to the end of the Second World War. Stalin, aggressive and unpredictable, has summoned Akhmatova to his office to complain about the hidden metaphors in her poetry. He believes her free verse is critical of his dictatorship and unpatriotic.

However, he does not order her execution or send her off to the Gulag. He realises that she could be useful; she could write poetry praising his reign instead. The fact that Stalin holds her son prisoner leads Akhmatova to take the proposition seriously. If she writes poetry for Stalin her son lives. It may seem an easy choice but Akhmatova wants to use her words as truths, and not as propaganda. She fears that acquiescing to Stalin will mean that she becomes a traitor to her own country, which she loves fiercely.

She discovers that she won’t be the only artistic person on his books as Stalin claims that Shostakovich is also working for him, and that the Fifth Symphony was written under his direction. Akhmatova’s friend Isaiah Berlin, who keeps popping over from Oxford, recommends that she write two kinds of poetry, one for Stalin, and one for the rest of the world that he will smuggle out of Leningrad.

The play is impressively researched, and the imagined conversations between the characters seem possible. As Stalin, Ian Redford is coarse and blustery, and, towards the end, needy. It’s a strong performance with a few elements of humour, which are gladly received. Writer Olsen takes the part of Akhmatova, and perhaps she overplays the role of martyred poet a little, her once youthful verve when she was in the artists’ group the Stray Dog Cafe now overtaken by solemnity and reflection.

As Berlin, Ben Porter is efficient and likeable, but he has little to do but provide timelines and exposition. Perhaps this play should be a two hander instead, with just Stalin and Akhmatova, and at over two hours long, perhaps this play could be a little shorter too. With only snatches of verse embedded into the script, Stray Dogs leaves you craving for more poetry. While Stalin listens to records of applause, you want to hear more of Akhmatova who was once shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Jo Shapcott’s recent translation of the poem Wild Honey demonstrates the Russian poet’s skills:

Wild honey smells like freedom

Dust – like a ray of the sun….

But finally we’ve understood

That blood just smells of blood.

Runs until 7 December 2019

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