A dog's life in Russia has lessons for us all
It's 1953. Joseph Stalin is dead, the inmates of prison camps across Russia have been liberated, and Ruslan, the faithful guard dog who was such a key part of the system, has been abandoned. Without the clear structure and organisation he has always known, how can he possibly adjust?
Telling its story through the eyes of an innocent dog, this powerful new stage adaptation of Georgi Vladimov's cult novel brings a world premiere to the Belgrade, in the year marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution. It will be performed on the stage of the B2 auditorium, itself celebrating its tenth anniversary in 2017.
Written as an allegory for the disorientation of post-revolution Russia and with shades of Animal Farm, Vladimov's story has uncomfortable echoes for our own time.
Director Helena Kaut-Howson (pictured above) said, "Ruslan is a proud and loyal dog, bred and trained to serve according to particular rules. He finds it impossible to adapt when the terms of service become obsolete. This is a tragic fate shared by many who were betrayed by the changing winds of history.
"Today it speaks not only as an indictment of the atrocities of the gulag but also as a warning. The fate of a prison guard dog, stripped of his purpose, struggling and unable to find his place once the camp is shut, reminds us of the devastating effects that sudden change can have on society."
This will be the widely-respected Kaut-Howson's third production for the Belgrade Theatre, following her innovative adaptations of Checkhov plays, Sons Without Fathers and Uncle Vanya. The team around her includes the Olivier-award winner Marcello Magni, as Movement Director, and a thirteen-strong ensemble cast. It is a co-production with Glasgow's Citizens Theatre.
Interview with HELENA KAUT-HOWSON
This world premiere production is based on the book by Georgi Vladimov and translated by Michael Glenny.What was your first reaction to reading the book? I laughed and cried when I first read the story of the proud, unconditionally loving Ruslan, who was also a vicious prison guard dog. This was the greatest short book I’d read in years. Harrowing, compassionate and darkly funny it was rightly recognized as masterpiece. What it had to say about the condition of man and animal was brutal but unerringly true. Can you briefly explain the story behind Faithful Ruslan? Ruslan is a proud and loyal dog bred and trained to serve according to particular rules. He finds it impossible to adapt when the terms of service become obsolete. This is a tragic fate shared by many who were betrayed by the changing winds of history. The beauty of the story is that it's told from the perspective of the dog, with compassion and humour. Is this a story that remains relevant to modern audiences? Today it speaks not only as an indictment of the atrocities of the gulag but also as a warning. The tragic fate of a prison guard dog, stripped of his purpose, struggling and unable to find his place once the camp is shut, reminds us of the devastating effects that sudden change can have on society. This of course is only one of the aspects of this richly complex story. The most exciting is the perspective from which the dog views humanity. Why did you want to adapt this story for the stage? I believe that adapting it to the stage adds an extra layer of irony to the relationship between the guard, the prisonerand the dog. The allegory of enslavement to an ideology is more subtle here than in The Animal Farm, another book that works brilliantly on stage, and more grown up in its disillusionment, than in The War Horse. It appeals to the animal lover in us all and plays on our sense of betrayed hopes, the hopes of the revolution as well as the hopes of genuine alliance between humans, animals and nature. This will be your third production for the Belgrade Theatre following on from your acclaimed productions of Uncle Vanya andT Sons without Fathers, both Chekhov plays. What is it that attracts you to Russian literature? Actually I only turned to Russian drama after four decades of directing mainly English and European work. Though I grew up with Russian literature which I always admired and read from the angle of the history and tradition of my native Poland, perhaps it is only now that I feel I can add something new to its perception in this culture. I am also conscious that besides the frequently performed Chekhov there is also a whole body of Russian drama written after the revolution, works by Bulgakov, Babel and indeed Vladimov all brilliantly translated into English by Michael Glenny and deserving to be seen here.
What, for you, is special about working in this theatre space? I regard B2 auditorium a perfect space in which to perform modern drama, it allows total involvement with the theatrical experience as well as beautiful stage images.Your production will mark the 10 th anniversary of the B2 auditorium at the Belgrade Theatre. Whichever way the seats are arranged the relationship between the stage and the audience remains always close and intimate. Actors love playing here because they know that the proximity between them and the audience makes every nuance of their performance fully appreciated. What is the biggest challenge in bringing this production to the stage? Like all adaptations of novels, bringing it to the stage is full of challenges. The biggest one in this case is finding a physical language for the dogs without resorting to the use of puppets or mechanical contraptions,. In the novel Ruslan’s thought process seems very plausible, and so does the way he sees the world. To show the world from his point of view and to convey the many levels on which the story resonates for modern audiences has been a great but very exciting challenge. For this production, you have rounded up a team of internationally acclaimed artists and creatives professionals, including the Olivier award-winning Movement Director Marcello Magni. How important is movement in telling this story? Hugely! We evolved the physical language of the play through a series of workshops in which Marcello’s involvement was crucial. And we are still refining it and making it eloquent on every level.
As for the international background of the creative team, it reflects and hopefully enhances the background of the piece. What do you hope audiences will take away from this production?
I hope that they will be moved by the story, finding that it not only l adds to the commonality of our knowledge about the past but helps them look at today with a clearer eye. I hope that in this age of virtual images, and unpredictable reality, the audience will appreciate all the more the power of live theatre.