Interview With…Olivia Olsen

The writer and actress chatted to Love London Love Culture about Stray Dogs, playing at the Park Theatre from the 13th November.

Hi Olivia – could you explain a bit more about the story behind ‘Stray Dogs’?Joseph Stalin stamped out the soul of Russia and attempted to replace it with himself.  But he cannot control all things completely and Anna Akhmatova, a poet, exemplifies what he cannot touch, have, annihilate or devour.   Their relationship escalates around an ultimatum Stalin gives her, paralleling the unexpected arrival of a man who becomes the beacon and turning point of her life. 

How did you first discover the story?  I read her poetry. On a particular night I knew I had to create a work about poetry vs. a dominant culture of industry, mechanised mass production and technology.  Akhmatova’s life in the Soviet Union when the ideals of the revolution were consumed in a culture of terror became for me a focus for this question.

Were there any challenges in creating this play?   The greatest challenge was knowing and being able to articulate the inner life of the characters but in a dramatic form, not all this is said and when spoken in relationship with someone, these words are strung together differently. The play had many different processes and phases, like starting by dancing every one of Akhmatova’s poems, then speaking them. I enjoyed each part, research, collecting her people and world, finding the themes and focus, allowing those to flourish and then the fine tuning of discarding and through editing finding the quintessence of her voice.   The last part of the creation is rehearsal where the play again is changing as Robin (director), Ian and Ben’s (Stalin and Berlin) creativity shapes it further.  They are like light coming through the prism, bringing new rhythms, colour, layers.

How does it feel to be bringing ‘Stray Dogs’ to the Park Theatre?  When Melli Marie at the Park first invited me for a conversation it was a wonderful moment, one I shall never forget.   When the contract was finalised commitment and energy for the production increased.  There have been miracles, not possible until Parks Theatre’s ‘Yes’.   When I imagine the production, I feel it nested in a vibrant place.

Could you tell me a bit more about Anna Akhmatova – how do you see her as a character? Akhmatova is a champion that was silenced.  In discovering her world I found a bigger world and bigger themes of cruelty, the power of fear, tyranny, artists who are forced and used. She is a hero because she held fast to her ideals and was not broken. She faced evil head on and though there was a balancing act she had to walk in order to survive, she did not bow.  Akhmatova was beautiful, talented and an icon not because of a celebrity campaign but because she was connected to the genius of poetry.   She could have chosen safety through flight but she didn’t. She stayed with her people.  She became their voice, the cities voice, the voice of that earth.

What do you think we can learn from Anna’s story today?   Well it would be wonderful if people became interested in her poetry and sought her out.  Isaiah Berlin too, he made a tremendous contribution to philosophy and contemporary thought, especially in relationship to the question of freedom.   It is obvious that Stalin exist in our domestic relationships, our work places, in our politics.  I don’t think we need to learn anything.  It is simply to feel the struggle between the truth of ones own voice, the dignity and integrity that lives within each of us and how this is pitched against forces. 

What can we expect from this production? I hope through the intimacy of the way Stray Dogs is staged, a visceral response to the argument each character is fighting for.  A pleasure, that in dealing with a poet, people in history are dealt with in a poetic way.  I don’t mean sentimental, I mean that language is valuable, a weapon, and influence. Expect conflict, brutality, sensitivity, beauty, a time in history when sixty million were killed and it was still possible to love.

By Emma Clarendon

Stray Dogs will play at the Park Theatre from the 13th November until the 7th December.

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