Olivia Olsen’s play is based on the life of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, who was admired in equal measures by the intelligentsia and the public. She refused to leave the Soviet Union during the purges and was co-opted by Stalin into writing propaganda in return for her son Lev’s release from the gulag.
This moral dilemma fails to fully engage in the heavy-handed Stray Dogs. Robin Herford’s production is largely static and the transitions between scenes are awkwardly handled. The set by Paul Colwell is at least effective, consisting of speeches and poems dangling from the ceiling – a reminder of how easily words can be dispersed and destroyed.
Olsen also plays Akhmatova. She’s exhausted but still steely as she begs for news of her son. In contrast, Ian Redford’s leering, gammon-y Stalin shouts a great deal and has moments when he is creepily pally with his victim. The fact that Oxford émigré Isaiah Berlin (Ben Porter) was once Akhmatova’s lover is barely acknowledged, though it probably wouldn’t add a great deal to the play. As it is, a two-hander between Akhmatova and Stalin might have worked more effectively.
There is certainly potential to create a compelling drama from this story. Unfortunately, in its current form, it consists of a stream of undigested historical information. The dialogue is dismayingly clunky and, for a play about words, its verbosity lets it down, with only a smattering of Akhmatova’s striking poetry woven into the text.