Ivan and the Dogs Soho Theatre
It is a great thrill to see a great actor perform a well-known role that is much anticipated. But no one can prepare you for the excitement of watching a lesser-known actor giving an exquisite performance in a strong piece of new writing. Hattie Naylor’s Ivan and the Dogs is currently showing at the Soho Theatre, having started life originally as a play on Radio 4. A cast of one, the character of Ivan reflects back on his time sleeping rough on the streets of Moscow as a young child during Russia’s political and economic crisis of the 1990s. Based on a true story, four-year-old Ivan Mishukov escaped his turbulent home life to live on the streets where he was adopted by a pack of wild dogs.
It is a poignant tale told with an endearing childish simplicity enhanced by the fact that the character of Ivan has not grown up or lived long enough to become detached from his experience or to lose his intuition, but he has matured enough that he can be gently self-mocking about his four-year-old self. The narrative has a raw quality to it – an ache and an exhilaration – as if, for the first time, Ivan is opening his heart to a person he has come to trust.
In Ellen McDougall’s hauntingly beautiful production, Ivan is played by Polish actor Rad Kaim whose profound understanding of his character’s emotions and worldview are a rare thing to watch. Sat, crouched or cowering throughout in a bright white box on stilts, Ivan retells his experience, often in hushed tones, with an immediacy and vulnerability that draws you in and holds you spellbound throughout. What comes across powerfully is the character’s superior instinctiveness which, at four years old, ensures his survival against the odds. He has a hatred for his violent alcoholic stepfather, who has “monster’s breath”, he mistrusts the street “bombzi”, who want something bad from him, and is wary of the young glue-sniffers who have “nothing in their eyes”. By contrast, his love and respect for Belka, the large white dog that first befriends him, is marked by his immediate recognition of her “big, hungry, sad eyes”.
There is a quiet intelligence about Ivan, as he listens almost serenely to the fierce arguments between his mother and step-father and calmly narrates gangster shootings in the apartment next door. But there is also a buoyant resilience and vivacity which come to fruition as he recalls his encounters with the wild dogs and their victories on the streets together as they pilfer food from rubbish bins, run rings around the militia men (police), and make the bully-boy cry. Ivan’s robust nature is infectious as he enthuses about the crisps he remembered to bring from home, the two bits of carpet he uses to sleep between, and the first potato that Belka takes from his hand. With sparing and beautifully judged use of visual perspective, Ivan crouches sideways in his box as he offers the food to Belka for the first time. It is an exquisite moment as his mouth is locked in trembling awe and his arm is outstretched, as his fingers slowly and coaxingly rub together.
There is an intense beauty in Ivan’s recollection of the dogs in the chirpy accounts of their names and personalities; in the sense of breathless exhilaration as he runs and barks with them as part of their pack; and in his incredulity that – at every occasion – the dogs come to his defence. At these moments, Kaim breaks into a beaming smile, which make for some of the most heartwarming and heartbreaking moments in theatre.
Naylor’s writing is nicely restrained and naturally poetic, structured around the childlike narrative device of ‘and then’. At no point is it sentimental or twee, and Ivan’s murderous feelings towards his step-father are captured in a passage which is boldly brutal as Ivan hisses hatefully through gathering tears. And, without force, the piece goes beyond being a child’s first-hand account to a meditation on human nature and people’s ability (and tendency) to lie. Dogs don’t lie; they just are. With just the right amount of emotive high and low points throughout the hour-long piece, an effective use of narrative symmetry, coupled with imaginative yet unobtrusive direction and Kaim’s intuitive sense of pacing, the piece becomes exquisite.
Subtle lighting changes, an evocative and varied soundscape alongside simple, ghostly projections of the dogs across the back of the white box provide all you need to feel the icy cold and loneliness of night time Moscow, the claustrophobic heat of the glue-den, and the panoramic peace of the countryside surrounding the city.
This is theatre at its simplest and best. I’m excited to see what actor Rad Kaim does next.