Friday, October 15, 2010

Ivan and the Dogs at Soho Theatre

Moscow in the 1990s, when Yeltsin was still in power, was a harsh place for those with little money. While the elite feasted, many people struggled to feed their families. Pets were frequently abandoned in desperation; wild dogs roamed the streets.

Four year old Ivan’s world is a volatile one; his stepfather is a violent drunk and his mother spends much of her time weeping in fear. One morning the boy makes a run for it only to end up on the streets and forced to fend for himself.

His first attempts to find shelter result in him being kicked and taunted by a group of vagrant children but he eventually finds solace and security with a pack of wild dogs.

Ivan spends two years with his canine companions, developing an ever stronger bond with the head of the pack, a white dog he names Belka. He begs by day and is always careful to share his food with the dogs. As the nights grow colder he is eventually allowed into their den where he curls up with them for warmth.

Based on the true experiences of Ivan Mishukov (a potent story that also inspired NIE’s My Life with the Dogs), Hattie Naylor’s monologue has a gentle, fable-like quality. The simple set consists of a square white box in which actor Rad Kaim perches. As Ivan Kaim’s performance is quiet but compelling, vulnerable and open; he is often still and silent, as if lost in memory, but sometimes his face brightens and fills with delight. His movements and manner are subtly childlike but he never overplays this aspect of his performance.

Initially written for radio, Naylor’s play lacks immediacy. Ivan describes the way his behaviour becomes more doglike during his time on the streets, but as he is speaking from some future point a lot is left to the audience’s imagination. There’s never any real jeopardy over Ivan’s survival and Naylor seems more interested in how he survives, his gradual acceptance by the pack and the sense of connection he feels with the animals. Director Ellen McDougall resists the urge to have Kaim show this transition through his performance and a distance is always maintained between the Ivan on stage and the Ivan being described - the audience are told about, but don't ever really see, the small boy who learns to bark and growl in order to survive.

The gentle tone of this ATC and Soho Theatre co-production is accentuated by the sound design: Ivan’s monologue is interspersed with short bursts of pre-recorded Russian voices and, at one point, the poignant sound of a child singing. Occasionally the faint silhouettes of running dogs are projected on the set, ethereal and transient shapes which are more than a little reminiscent of Watership Down’s spirit bunnies, but for the most part the focus is on Kaim and he holds the attention throughout.

Though Naylor’s play supplies plenty of grim descriptions of the things Ivan witnesses while on the streets - blank-eyed glue sniffing children, tramps being brutally beaten and stripped - they’re not as penetrating as they might be and the overall tone is actually one of hope and optimism. The play, while never sentimental, is at times romantic about Ivan's situation and Naylor only very superficially explores what life might be like for Ivan after his experiences; she chooses instead, perhaps wisely, to end things on an uplifting note.

Reviewed for musicOMH

No comments: