In the tight, tense space of Sputnik 2, a rattling, hissing ‘heap of junk’, is Laika. It is dark, and it is very warm, and she is painfully, agonisingly alone. She is also a dog. Aliya Gilmore’s play imagines the story of Laika, a dog sent into space by the Soviets in 1957, but to reduce it to this is simply unfair. Gilmore’s writing spans fairytale, poetry and hard-hitting drama, with some absolutely stellar (if you’ll pardon the pun) lines that stay with you and resurge with new meaning as the play progresses. It is a complex, entirely developed script that ranges from a discussion of animal rights, familial relationships, folklore and isolation. ‘I’m not meant to be here.’ Laika tells us. ‘It’s like I don’t fit.’
Themes of the piece aside for a second, Iz McGrady is certainly meant to be on that stage. She handles the emotional range of the piece with magnetic ease, moving from humour to heart-breaking intensity beautifully. There isn’t a second where she is implausible or unconvincing, and as for the fact that her character is actually a dog? Don’t worry about it. Auguste Voulton and Aaron Rozanski’s direction hits the balance exactly. You don’t forget that Laika is a dog, but it doesn’t get in the way of the very human intensity of the delivery either.
The relationship between Laika and the ‘Man’ (Ben Cartwright) is beautifully developed. Cartwright’s character could easily be portrayed as simply cruel, a callous embodiment of Soviet aspirations in the Space Race. Not so. He is tender, sweet, thoughtful – haunted by the legacy of the fundamental cruelty of what he has done, and it is complicated. It twists the playful moments between the two of them, where they dance to ‘By the Light of the Silvery Moon’ because even though it is sweet and humorous, you know what Laika is destined for. A destiny, that is, among the stars. Cartwright seamlessly manages to portray the range of motivations behind the idea, and when he says ‘she thought coming with me would be the best idea’, there’s a note of regret embedded in it that is difficult to forget.
Supported by an ingenious use of tech, Laika takes us on a journey through mythology and fairytale as well as literally through space. Music underscores it perfectly, and while the opening to the Star Wars theme tune could be considered trite if handled incorrectly, it actually comes to support the play’s more childish, playful elements, something reflected in McGrady’s energetic physicality and the use of a metal sieve as a space helmet. Gilmore’s script is perfectly served by the intimate proximity of the audience, and there is a wonderful connection between actor and audience that really encourages you to think about the broader themes that the play offers us. There’s a really interesting consideration of what it means to be a ‘lovely girl’ – chosen simply because you are pretty, or fit the right ideal, or simply just there – that can be abstracted beyond the world of the play.
As Laika’s torch dims on stage, the audience is left stunned, heartbroken and thoroughly impressed – with the sensation that here is a cast, prod team and writer who, having taken us through space, have equally new heights to soar to.
Laika is playing at Caedmon Hall, Hild Bede, in General Programme 1 of DDF on the 7th and 8th of February.
Image: Durham Drama Festival