Review: Stray Dogs at Park Theatre

Ian Redford as Stalin and Olivia Olsen as Anna Akhmatova

Ian Redford as Stalin and Olivia Olsen as Anna Akhmatova - Credit: Archant

A stand off between Stalin and Russian poet Anna Akhamatova is brought to compelling life in Olivia Olsen’s humane exploration of creativity and courage

Many audience members would have come to the Park knowing of Anna Akhmatova and her poetry.

But even for someone unfamiliar with her work - like me - this was two hours of riveting, compelling theatre.

The set is rich but simple with manuscripts hanging like a bathroom clothesline over the desk, and a sofa that doubles as Stalin's office and Anna's sitting room.

Leningrad 1940: the purges are at their height, populations have been moved or slaughtered, millions imprisoned in the Gulag, the army hollowed out, the NKVD has ears everywhere, brutality and sadism are triumphant and orthodoxy to the Party and Comrade Stalin are the guiding imperatives.

Poetry in (pre and post revolutionary) Mother Russia is crucially important in giving a voice and inspiration to the people.

The Germans are at the border and Stalin wants a favour from Anna.

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A favour for the man responsible for banning her work and whose Secret Police have executed her husband and incarcerated her son Lev and lover Punin.

Sitting upright, terrified and dignified, Anna is begging Stalin for Lev's life. He offers to free him if Anna agrees to produce uplifting verse.

Isaiah Berlin visits with an offer to get her to England. Convincingly played by Ben Porter, he plays the chorus that explains the history, and emphasises the contrast between civilized Oxford and brutal Russia. He enables Anna to explain Anna, and conspires in some industrial name dropping!

But Anna is a passionate Russian and, despite the terror of her situation, she will never leave: "This is my city."

Ian Redford is brilliant as Stalin: large, bombastic and casually sadistic, always in control and with an uncanny insight into opponents' motivations.

Anna is played by Olivia Olsen and she is superb. She wholly captures the, vulnerability, intelligence and focus of this dignified, principled woman and, as a playwright, she has produced a tight but accessible human work.

Although reflecting the events of 80 years ago, Stray Dogs deals with creativity, loyalty, identity and courage - concepts just as relevant in our troubled times.