What it takes to be human? "Heart of a Dog" by Art-Vic Anglo-Russian Theatre ****
at The Lion and Unicorn Theatre, London
Directed by Victor Sobchak
3-5 September 2017
This performance was highly anticipated by the Russian audience in London, foĺlowing the announcement by Victor Sobchak that in exactly a month he would stage Bulgakov’s famous novel, which long before had been proposed by another Russian theatre - Xameleon - for its premiere in early October. Was his decision a coincidence or a deliberate move? We can only guess, but we know that it resulted in a full house at the premiere of Sobchak’s version and no doubt promises good ticket sales for Xameleon as well.
The choice of Bulgakov’s novel is obviously connected with the one-hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution being marked this year. We all know how it resulted in the destruction of millions of the most intelligent and best people of society who were sent to their deaths and were replaced by the reign of the Communists.
Professor Preobrazhensky, performed by Dainius Valutis in a very humane and subtle way, pronounces his timeless aphorisms with a slight Lithuanian accent which makes him and his companion Doctor Bormental (Artur Ustinov, also Lithuanian) sound a bit like aliens among the brutal Communists surrounding them. These two gentle and intelligent actors create a perfect duet, showing us what people should be like even when confronted by the mad crowd. Ina Kim’s Zinaida Bunina joins them in their astonishment, which we can read in her enlarged and sometimes terrified eyes.
Sobchak goes straight to the point in his production, as he uses bold and clear theatrical language to show us the grotesque reality of Bulgakov’s novel, in which Professor Preobrazhensky decides to create a man out of a dog by giving him the pituitary gland and testicles of a low-life thief and alcoholic. Dima Sol portrays with almost wild energy the transformation of an animal into a creature that is incomparably worse than any animal. Each time Dima appears he fills the stage with true raw emotion, even if it is the emotion of a scoundrel. You actually feel sorry for his character, because he is so sure of his actions, as he has never known anything else.
Sobchak as always creates a clear and dynamic structure in the performance, this time focusing on the dialogue and wonderful humour and wisdom of Bulgakov’s novel. The performance is staged in the environment of a bare black box with minimal furniture and props, which is the usual style for Sobchak. The small square stage of The Lion and Unicorn suits his productions much better than the wide stage of Theatre Technis, where Sobchak also works, as the energy of the actors is concentrated better when it can be gathered into one small area, and even the minor characters such as the professor’s patients, performed by the very funny Igor Outkine and Larisa Volkova, are given more limelight. Larisa is particularly bizarre, amusing and flirtatious in her portrayal of a woman tormented by her age, and the actress is rewarded by generous applause from the audience at the end of her scene.
Sobchak had a difficult task on his hands in creating an original production, following after the film by Valery Bortko, which is much loved by Russians. The director has found some very unusual interpretations in his performance; thus the male character Shvonder, the head of the house, is performed brilliantly by the actress Vera Horton with true fanaticism in her eyes and steel in her voice. Gin Mar performs two parts - the man-like Communist Vyasemskaya in a leather coat, and the gentle girl Vasnetsova, who is seduced by Sharikov. This young actress brought gentleness and lyricism to each part that we saw her in during the last season, such as the prostitute in “First Love” by Beckett or Cordelia in “King Lear”: she is like a tender melody in each of these productions. In “The Heart of a Dog” we can also see her grotesque and comic potential.
Sobchak loves working with young actors and students, giving them an opportunity to perform the best roles in world literature. He is definitely a tyrannical type of director who creates the whole structure of the performance in his head with the powerful highlights usually intensified by the music and lighting, and he does not like spending a very long time discussing and rehearsing: he rather places actors into an extreme situation where they have to do their best in a very short time. This is actually the method of quite a few Russian directors, including Valery Belyakovich, who staged "Hamlet" in the space of two weeks and it later became the hit of the Edinburgh Festival.
However, Sobchak's actors love him for his brutality and intensity, which give them the opportunity to stretch their limits. Well-established professional English actors, such as Lucien Morgan, are happy to perform tiny parts in his performances and in “Heart of a Dog” Lucien even makes an effort to pronounce a few words in Russian.
Sobchak’s style of directing cuts out anything that could be insignificant in telling us the main idea he wants us to grasp and the conclusions of his performances are usually really powerful. In his recent production of “The Idiot” we saw how a kind-hearted and gentle Prince Myshkin performed by Dima Sol was literally brought into a vegetative state by the people around him. Sobchak could not fit all the philosophy of Dostoevsky into a two-hour production, but the image of wheelchair-bound prince with saliva dripping out of his mouth would stay in the mind of the audience for a long time, as through it Sobchak managed to express his understanding of the gist of Dostoevsky’s novel.
At the end of "Heart of a Dog", when Sharikov becomes completely uncontrollable and raging in his lack of human qualities, Dima Sol portrays him with the most telling facial expressions and gestures of a disgusting criminal. A few minutes later, which are days in the space of the novel, Shvonder demands to see Sharikov and what a contrast it is: an adorable little dog (Senna) runs out onto the stage as the professor wisely says: “Do you say he was able to talk? This doesn’t make him a human being.” In these few seconds the director completely melts the hearts of the audience who gasps and the true magic of theatre fills the air when everyone becomes united by the same powerful feeling.
This is what the art of theatre is about: you do not need an elaborate set, many “intellectual” ideas or “professional” actors - you need a director who knows exactly what he wants to say and a group of people willing to experience this magic when the actors and the audience become one in realising how the time spent at the theatre has changed them. Sometimes it’s called catharsis. "Heart of a Dog" received a standing ovation. Highly recommended.