Saturday, 19 September 2015

High Wall Theatre: Hattie Naylor "Ivan & the Dogs" Two Showings Clifford Room Barnfield Theatre Friday 18 & Saturday 19 September 2015

Harry Kingscott
is Ivan

Director: Dan McNeill
Exeter University drama student Dan McNiell completed his studies a year ago and celebrated in style with a movement theatre project which went to the Northcott Theatre. ("The Alpha Effect").

A year on, now married with a young son, Dan returns the the Exeter theatre scene, directing Hattie Naylor's 2010 one-man play "Ivan and the Dogs" - and the Producer is Dan's wife Laura McNeill.

Ivan is played by Alpha-Effect veteran Harry Kingscott. Harry delivers the narrative as reminiscence. He (Ivan) has survived the events he is about to relate and, in recalling them at the age of eleven, becomes once again the terrified four year old boy that he was at the time. (Ivan Mishukov is a real person who survived for two years on the streets of Moscow from the age of four to the age of six.)

Harry's slim build and youthful features partly prepare the audience for his transformation into a starving street child. Nervous movements and frenetic energy complete the effect. Bravely Harry also affects a very convincing Russian accent. (Mishukov recovered his ability to speak Russian after his ordeal, and Harry's use of accent reminds us that this story is originally autobiographical.)

Hattie Naylor
The home life in Moscow that he describes is shocking enough. Events of which young Ivan would have been unaware (The 1993 Russian Constitutional Crisis) resulted in Boris Yeltsin retaining power, but badly affected the Russian economy and quality of life in Moscow. Goods were scarce and the money to buy them even scarcer. Any animals that couldn't be fed were taken to an unfamiliar area and abandoned.

Feral dogs were already a problem in Moscow, and Ivan may have been mistaken to think that the population increased significantly as a result of dogs being abandoned. In any event, feral dogs are a very visible feature of Moscow. Currently there are about 35,000 dogs roaming the streets and many have learned how to use the Metro system to travel around the city.

Illustration by Assistant Director Laura Brown
Harry's re-enactment of Ivan's sojourn with the Moscow dogs is upsetting, but also enlightening. As a small boy Ivan recalls his fear that he would be abandoned like a dog - and chose to take to the streets of his own accord. Domestic violence, exacerbated by poverty, precipitated his escape into street life.

The explanation for Ivan's fears is in the form of voices off-stage (provided from recordings made for this production by Kamila Shanazarova & Gicu Esanu and activated by Dan at the control desk). Ivan's step-father Kolya in drunken rage blames Ivan for drinking his vodka and complains that Ivan does nothing but eat and drink. This part is somewhat hard to follow, as the recordings are in Russian, but Ivan's narrative fills in the gaps, and the meaning is clear.

On the street, Ivan's perceptions of other people are child-like, but pragmatically perceptive. Incredibly a four year old boy works out how to survive in a world of criminals, beggars, other children and, most vulnerable of all, the 'bomzi'. This is Ivan's word for homeless alcoholics, who are particularly susceptible to the cold of the Moscow winter.

In a very concise and economic way, every aspect of survival is explained - as is Ivan's ability to pick up the tricks fast enough to avoid a premature end. Most fascinating, of course, is Ivan's ability to form relationships with feral dogs. Without preconceived notions of anthropomorphic characters, Ivan learns quickly how to get on the right side of the street dogs. Despite the absence of human language in his relationship with the dogs, he gives them names (at least in recollection) - Belka, the matriarch and his initial contact, Vano, Strelka, Ruslan and Kugya.

With food of any kind at a premium, Ivan quickly learns that any food he can obtain by begging serves a much more useful purpose as gifts to his canine defenders, than as sustenance for himself. Apart from this advantage, Ivan survives mainly through his empathy with the dogs, and his ability to learn their social rules and how to communicate in barks and howls.

Harry Kinscott acknowledges
Director, Dan McNeill
Harry Kingscott tells the story, and simultaneously acts it out, with engaging energy. His movements are skilfully choreographed by Assistant Director Laura Brown (who worked with Harry before, when she choreographed "The Alpha Effect".) The few props he uses to illustrate are exploited to their full potential, making additional characters and staging unnecessary. Dan McNeill's recorded inserts are beautifully timed and his use of light effects enhances the mood greatly. The audience on the opening night were transfixed by Harry on stage. No one moved a muscle. Every pair of eyes and ears was trained on the little boy struggling in a hostile environment, willing him to succeed and survive.

We already know, of course, that Ivan will survive and be rescued. The rescue when it comes, however, is not quite as one might anticipate, and brings a new sense of poignancy to a harrowing tale.

This play is showing at the Barnfield Theatre in Exeter on Friday and Saturday evening this week. The venue is the very intimate and atmospheric Clifford Rood. Hearty congratulations to Dan, Laura and Harry for a very accomplished and successful production, and I hope there will be another run soon.

Meanwhile Dan McNeill, Laura Brown and Harry Kingscott will be on air in the Soundart Radio studio at Dartington Hall this Sunday at 5pm - to discuss the play, and their plans for the future.

High Wall Theatre
Clifford Room Barnfield Theatre
Friday 18 & Saturday 19 September 7.30pm
A play by Hattie Naylor
Director: Dan McNeill
Ivan: Harry Kingscott
Tickets: £8 (concession £6)
Box Office: 01392 271808

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