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Review: Stray Dogs, at Park Studio

22 November, 2019 — By Lucy Popescu

Olivia Olsen and Ben Porter in Stray Dogs. Photo: Nick Rutter

ANNA Akhmatova is regarded as one of the great Russian poets of the last century.

During her early career, between 1911 and 1915, she performed her work at the Stray Dog cabaret in St Petersburg with other bohemian writers and poets.

They considered themselves “stray dogs” because they operated outside the more conventional literary circles. Post-revolution, their work drew the rancour of the state.

Several of Akhmatova’s fellow writers were executed or exiled.

Akhmatova’s home life was equally fraught. Her first husband, Nikolay Gumilyov, was executed by the Soviet secret police and her son Lev spent many years in the gulag.

Olivia Olsen’s play opens in 1940 when Joseph Stalin held Lev’s fate over Akhmatova and forced her to write poems for the state. Her friend, Isaiah Berlin, a diplomat at the British embassy, offered her the chance to escape but Akhmatova refused to leave.

Berlin famously first visited Akhmatova in her Leningrad apartment in November 1945, but Olsen ignores or merges several historical facts. This will undoubtedly alienate those who come armed with a love and knowledge of the poet and period.

Stray Dogs is made up of scenes between Akhmatova and Stalin and Akhmatova and Berlin. Some of these work better than others. Olsen captures the debilitating effect of artistic repression but her play never fully ignites. The script (running at two hours) feels overlong and the actors (including Olsen as Akhmatova) have their work cut out for them.

Ian Redford gives an energetic performance as Stalin and captures his petulant paranoia, but Olsen is stilted and Ben Porter as Berlin has little to do.

The highlights are the extracts from Akhmatova’s poems. Go for the poetry.

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