Soviet Russia in 1925. An insistence on ‘equality’ caused the country to drown under the oppressive paperwork of its fanatical bureaucracy. It hardly seems the ideal setting for a play with numerous bouts of humour. The communist government requires equal measurements of cramped living space, equal rations of salted meats, and equal rights for every ‘comrade’ – even dogs. Mikhail Bulgakov comically satirises this bleak environment in Heart of a Dog, turning government officials and angry proles into caricatured inhabitants of communist Russia.
Bulgakov’s work is overtly subversive, making it clear that the government’s depiction of the ‘New Soviet Man’ is nothing but an ideological standard that cannot be impressed upon the everyday citizen. With his distinctly anti-communist portrayal of the socialist revolution, it is no wonder that Bulgakov’s novella wasn’t legally published in Soviet Russia until 1987. Since then, it has been adapted for the stage and is brought to life by James Ahearne in the intimate setting of the Alec Clegg Studio at the Stage@Leeds.
Heart of a Dog sees professor Phillip Phillipovich lure a stray mongrel into his apartment under the pretence of kindness. Once inside, the professor transplants human parts into the dog in an experiment that goes awry, Frankenstein-style, turning the animal into an abominable version of a human man. Polygraph Polygraphovich, as the dog-turned-man wittily names himself, does not possess the manners and refinement of his creator, but belongs firmly in the camp of the proletariat. He exploits this role in order to make the most of his ‘rights’ under the communist system and torture the exasperated Phillipovich.
Ahearne’s interpretation of Buglakov’s work is both funny and hard-hitting, questioning where the humanity lies in the relentlessly overbearing world of Soviet Russia. The strength of the production lies in Sam Ripman’s disturbingly canine depiction of Polygraphovich – he exhibits an unsettling mix of proletariat anger and primitive disgustingness, with his frenzy of uncannily dog-like characteristics bordering on the uncomfortable in their vulgarity. Ben Meagher’s Phillipovich is convincing as the aging professor stuck in the mindset of Tsarist Russia, and Mark Pollock’s OGPU Man humorously depicts the stupidity of a police force blindly following the orders of their superiors.
The production does have some downfalls. The action was a little slow starting, and some of the roles were acted with such flourish that they blurred the line between being cleverly caricatured and slightly ridiculous. However, any glitches are minor ones, with the energy of the student cast bringing Bulgakov’s work to life in a way that is remarkable considering their three-week rehearsal period.
Buglakov’s Heart of a Dog exposes the depressing reality of a country oppressed by the over-zealous promotion of socialism. Ahearne reaches the right balance between humour – most memorably depicted by the scene in which Polygraphovich pursues a host of devious cats – and dark political satire, resulting in a clever and engaging piece that advertises the potential of the talented young cast.
Heart of a Dog played at the Stage@Leeds at the University of Leeds. For more shows see its website here.