It’s 1940 in Russia, in the midst of Stalin’s rule. Anna Akhmatova, one of Russia’s greatest modern poets, has lost her husband, and is at risk of losing her son, too. Stalin, realising the power that her words have to move the people, offers her a choice: help him by writing the sort of poetry that he asks – or her son won’t emerge from the Gulag alive. Torn between her art, her country, her son and herself, Olivia Olsen’s play Stray Dogs explores the story of one of the most extraordinary women of the 20th century, and the unimaginably difficult choices she had to make.
And while it’s such an interesting subject (I had no idea about Anna Akhmatova, but then again, I don’t know very much about Soviet Russia in general), it unfortunately lacks any bite. Olsen’s script is lengthy, and at over two hours, I can’t help but feel like there is some dialogue that is non-essential to the story.
The script seems to be cyclical – Anna is summoned by Stalin, he tells her to write propaganda, she’s distressed. Anna is visited by Isiah Berlin, a philosopher from England, he tells her to get out while she can, she’s distressed. The evening is dominated by poor Anna being distressed, caught between a rock and a hard place. As a result, it doesn’t feel as though the story really goes anywhere. And it doesn’t, just as Anna doesn’t.
Olsen is fine as Anna, although watching her is quite frustrating. This isn’t due to her acting skill, but rather her character’s meekness and the hopelessness of her situation, although I suppose this is necessary to accurately tell Anna’s story and honour her memory. Ian Redford as Stalin is suitably terrifying, casually giving orders to execute large groups of people mid-meeting with Anna. He helps to remind us of the horrors of the period, and how commonplace it had all become.
Stray Dogs, while honourable in its mission, simply isn’t the most interesting play in the world. If I cast my eye across the stage to the other side of the stalls, I can see half a dozen people nodding off, and this sums up the pace of the play perfectly. Between soft-spoken Olsen and the way the piece gently wobbles towards a delicate conclusion, it doesn’t quite pack enough punch to be a hit.
Stray Dogs is playing the Park Theatre until 7 December. For more information, visit the Park Theatre website.