The stage bursts with energy in Heart of a DogKatie Burge with permission for Varsity

When the novella Heart of a Dog was written in 1925 by Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov, it was seized by the secret police for being potentially dissentient due to its pitting of Bolshevik communism against anti-communist individualism. Since then it has been turned into a film, an opera, a musical and a classroom staple. Now, taking advantage of a time (and, perhaps, a university) where questioning our relationships with, and obligations to, other people feels increasingly pressing, Miles Hitchens (who wrote, directed and starred) has turned it into a colourful play that fills the Corpus Playroom to the brim with its wry humour and colourful characters. Though perhaps no longer a cutting-edge satire that’s explicitly politically relevant, it re-emerges as a gem of concision and ingenuity whose willingness to poke fun at all sides of the debate on social duty is a joy to witness.

The play tells the story of the transformation of Sharik (James Wilson): a dog implanted with a human endocrine system who morphs into a mindlessly selfish, yet conversely ardently Bolshevist, drone. Complete with an eyesore tie and a propensity for bath-dodging, he infuriates his father-creator Professor Philip Philipovich with his refusal to learn human consideration and social mores. Hitchens uses this absurd tale to create an intense claustrophobia. The entire narrative arc plays out in one room, with characters bursting in and out, bringing renewed chaos and noise with them every time it seems that the room will return to the peace and constancy that the Professor, who is desperate to force the communist takeover of his neighbourhood to stop at his front door, so craves.

“Worth a special mention is his particular alacrity for what can only be described as facial gymnastics”

The performance has a jittery, cartoonish quality, utilising garish wallpaper, split-second costume changes on the part of the multi-rolling ensemble member (Helen Brookes), breakneck pacing and coloured lights to complement the bizarre plot and the comically exaggerated mannerisms of the characters. Hitchens shines in this respect, creating a Professor who swings wildly between a hilarious insincerity and an emotional volatility that climaxes in a tantalising glimpse of a vulnerable man whose world is slipping from his control. Worth a special mention is his particular alacrity for what can only be described as facial gymnastics. Wilson, too, does a great job of mixing the mannerisms of man and dog, bringing an eerily flat quality to Sharik’s words and actions that give the sense that this little man truly does have “the heart of a dog”. This dynamic style is certainly unusual, and there were a few failed experiments — the tableaus for instance, could have lent a comic-book quality to the stage, but were too shaky to feel like frozen images and weren’t helped by the intimacy of the performance space, where we could hear every frantic footstep and rustle as the actors raced to get into place before the lights came up.

That being said, the performance, for all its high energy levels and nonstop gags, maintains a wonderful grace and humanity. Hannah Le Seelleur’s Zina, the Professor’s harried apprentice who is placed in charge of Sharik, delivers monologues on his progress that blend poetry, a faint tinge of tragedy, and a comic irony that coated her emotional performance with a potent surreality. There was no sense of sparsity or clutter in the action or on the stage as the characters flowed through the set and the plot, steadily approaching what felt increasingly like impending disaster as the characters clashed more and more on their inability to make emotional or physical space for each other. The actors do a commendable job of emphasising the tight fit of the Playroom’s stage while keeping the space open enough to be constantly redefined by the characters and their shifting alliances and behaviours.


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One particularly bold choice was the short length of the play, which is impressively restrained, lasting no more than forty-five minutes. Indeed, one is left with the sense that the writer has shown all he needs to show and said all that should be said. Upon stepping back it is easy to see the beautiful symmetry he has achieved with the rise and fall of action. The fact that he has significantly condensed the novel is not at all obvious, and the audience is able to leave satisfied by this lovely morsel of theatre.

Hitchens’ writing and direction sparkle with an originality and levity that allows him to make neat work of bringing such a context-laden text, born of the political tensions of the then-Soviet Union, to a modern-day audience, all without losing sight of the innate struggle over human interconnectedness that drives the story. Just as a Soviet audience may have, I was left none the wiser but all the more curious about the tangled web of responsibility represented by the power struggles over the Professor’s apartment, his practice and imbecilic son-creation. When I went to see the show, the theatre was strikingly empty. Hopefully, as word spreads, people will realise what a rare and extraordinary treat they’re missing out on.

Heart of a Dog is playing at the Corpus Playroom from Wednesday 3rd to Saturday 6th May, 9:30pm.