Faithful Ruslan ****
Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow
The Coolidge Effect ***
Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Oran Mor, Glasgow
It’s said that when Georgi Vladimov’s novella Faithful Ruslan was first circulated in samizdat in the Soviet Union of the 1970s, readers saw it as an allegorical story about the fate of the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin in 1956. Set in Siberia during the liberalisation that followed Stalin’s death, it tells the story of a faithful prison-camp guard dog so strictly trained that when the camp is closed, and his adored master – a camp corporal – spares his life but tells him to get lost, he simply refuses to accept the change, rejecting all offers of food, trying to stick to the old rules, and searching everywhere for his worthless master.
To say that the story ends badly is an understatement; it is a litany of terrible suffering, not without some grim humour, but all too true to the tales of unendurable cold, hunger and cruelty that emerged from the European prison-camp history of the 20th century, and from the societies that gave birth to it. Yet in Helena Kaut-Howson’s new adaptation – a co-production with the Belgrade, Coventry and KP Productions, which Kaut-Howson also directs – the story acquires a new, post-human inflection for the 21st century, beginning to look less like an allegory, and more like a direct piece of agitprop against the abuse of animals down the ages; not least because both Vladimov and Kaut-Howson go to some lengths to explore the ways in which Ruslan is not human, but a member of another species entirely.
In Pawel Dobrzycki’s design – with movement by Marcello Magni and music and sound by Boleslaw Rawski – the show becomes a memorable, brutal symphony in bleak greys and blues, its cast of 13 alternating between dog life and human life at the flick of a tiny cosume-change; Max Keeble’s performance as Ruslan is truly heart-rending, Martin Donaghy’s as his callow young master downright chilling. And although Kaut-Howson’s adaptation never quite finds a way fully to dramatise Ruslan’s story rather than offering a powerful illustrated narrative – and sometimes loses pace and impetus as a result – Faithful Ruslan remains a harrowing, thought-provoking, and beautifully presented show, not only about man’s inhumanity to man, but about our even greater – and sometimes almost unbearable – cruelty to the other creatures with whom we share the planet.
If the moral boundaries between humans and animals are increasingly under question in the 21st century, then so is the interface between humans and machines. Wonder Fools’ new one-hour show The Coolidge Effect, at the Traverse this week, is a brave attempt to talk about the impact of internet pornography on human sexuality; and almost as soon as co-writer and performer Robbie Gordon begins his exploration, it becomes clear that this forceful mix of factual information, fictional storytelling, movement and reflection is asking everyone who uses internet pornography – which seems, if statistics are right, to be almost all of us – to think harder and talk more frankly about the impact it has on our lives, and our real-world relationships.
Co-written with director Jack Nurse, and produced by Ailie Crerar, The Coolidge Effect is named after President Coolidge’s famous remark – in response to a jibe from his wife – that the rooster in a chicken farm would not have sex so often if he was always copulating with the same hen; but if variety is the spice of life, this show asks how our lives can survive the advent of an internet that offers more variety, in ever more questionable forms, than most of us could even have imagined, in Coolidge’s day.
There’s a slight hint of President and Mrs Coolidge about Peter and Grace, the couple at the centre of this week’s Play, Pie and Pint drama by Ian Cowell; mutually acerbic, they are elderly but not dead yet. The only problem is that to add some spice to their lives, they seem to have taken to the arsenic-and-old-lace-style solution of doing away with their youthful lodgers; and when a new one appears on the threshold, it soon becomes clear that revenge is on the cards. George Drennan and Anne Lacey are brilliantly entertaining as Peter and Grace, Matthew Tomlinson downright terrifying as their overwhelmingly charming new lodger; and if the play is not much more than an extended comic sketch, it’s a thoroughly amusing one, delivered with immense relish by an all-star cast.
*Faithful Ruslan is at the Citizens’ Theatre until 7 October; The Coolidge Effect is at the Traverse until 23 September, and the Tron Theatre, Glasgow next week. Disturbed is at Oran Mor until 23 September.