Faithful Ruslan – The Story of a Guard Dog review at Belgrade Theatre, Coventry – ‘rambling and leaden’
Dog isn’t so much man’s best friend as his most cruelly conditioned subordinate in Helena Kaut-Howson’s adaptation of Georgi Vladimov’s novel, Faithful Ruslan. The eponymous character is a guard dog in a Soviet gulag who escapes being shot after the camp is decommissioned following Stalin’s death.
It’s a bleak, cold tale, and in its best moments we understand from Ruslan’s perspective a kind of caustic philosophy in which loyalty has little to do with love. Ruslan is thoroughly indoctrinated by ‘The Service’, and can’t process his disillusionment with authority when his governing structures abandon him.
But Vladimov’s ideas struggle to surface from the quagmire of Kaut-Howson’s adaption. It feels too novelistic, as sprawling as the Russian landscape. Its cumbersomely non-linear structure creates an awkward narrative arc, and scenes which could be done in a minute chase their tails for 10. It plods where it should scamper.
The production doesn’t favour economy either: a 13-strong ensemble crowds the stage, sometimes resulting in clumsy staging and an over-abundance of shouting crowds and barking packs of dogs.
In a near-wordless canine role, Max Keeble provides the show’s best performance. His facial features taut with a permanently pained intensity, he manages to make Ruslan a fully dimensional character and boasts by far the most convincing gallop of the cast. While it’s not comparable to Ruslan’s suffering, however, the show is nevertheless a rather pleasureless ordeal.