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Helena Kaut-Howsen - Faithful Ruslan: The Story of A Guard Dog

The last time Polish theatrical whirlwind Helena Kaut-Howson directed a play in Glasgow, it was a piece called Werewolves. Her 1999 production of fellow Pole Teresa Lubkiewicz's play was for the short-lived Theatre Archipelago company. The initiative was intended as a reinvention of Communicado, which until then had been led since its inception by company founder Gerry Mulgrew. Werewolves was a play about ghosts gatecrashing a remote farmhouse party, and had already been published in 1978 by Kaut-Howson, who had directed productions of the play in Galway, Montreal and London.

Eighteen years on, Kaut-Howson returns to Scotland with another shaggy dog story. Faithful Ruslan: The Story of A Guard Dog has been adapted by Kaut-Howson from the novel written during the 1970s by Russian dissident Georgi Vladimov. It is narrated by an Alsation let off the leash following the death of Stalin and the subsequent closure of the gulags, where, under military supervision, the dog and his pack of fellow travellers kept order. Once the gulags were closed and knocked down and their masters departed, such animals were rounded up and shot. Having escaped such a fate, Ruslan remains loyal to the last, even as the world is turned upside down around him.

Ruslan may be a dog, but it isn't hard to recognise parallels with the collective confusion of equally faithful followers of Stalin following his demise. It is perhaps for these reasons that the book was distributed anonymously in an underground samizdat fashion. Only when Vladimov's novel was published in Germany did it start reaching a wider audience, and first appeared in Michael Glenny's English translation in 1979. Today, it isn't hard to recognise a similarly fractured psyche that courses through the story stumbling its way through the world's current state of turmoil.

“It is epic,” says Kaut-Howson of the play the day after press night at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, who are co-producing the show with the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, where it opens later this month, alongside Kaut-Howson's own KP Productions. “It's a complex story on every level, and looks impossible to stage, but it is a beautiful novel, and because I'm a theatre person, when I see something wonderful, I just want to put it on a stage. It works better than on film, because the film that was made of Vladimov's story used real dogs, but I believe in the public experience.”

Key to the experience in this production is the presence of co-founder of the internationally renowned Complicitie company, Marcello Magni, as movement director. Working alongside Kaut-Howson, Magni has choreographed a cast of thirteen to play animals for real.

“It's a style of theatre that's very physical,” she says. “It combines with the style of theatre from the time, when drawing room dramas were abandoned. I find it amazing how easy actors find it to be comfortable in the skin of a dog.”

Such an open and internationalist outlook has defined Kaut-Howson's approach to making theatre, ever since she trained as a director in both Warsaw and London. In the late 1960s she worked at the Royal Court and the King's Head before departing to found a community theatre company in Jerusalem. Back in England, she taught at RADA, and directed Shakespeare in Bolton and Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars in Belfast.

In 1991, Kaut-Howson became artistic director of Theatre Clwyd in North Wales, working with the likes of Anthony Hopkins and Julie Christie. After leaving in 1995, Kaut-Howson developed a relationship with the Royal Exchange, Manchester, and worked extensively with actress Kathryn Hunter. This new production of Faithful Ruslan is a homecoming of sorts for Kaut-Howson. Long before Werewolves, she was drafted in to the Citz by the theatre's then co artistic director Giles Havergal to oversee a 1991 production of George Bernard Shaw's play, Man and Superman. She was the first female director to work in the Gorbals-based powerhouse.

“I really admire the way Dominic Hill keeps the same spirit alive,” she says.

Kaut-Howson describes her brief time with Theatre Archipelago as “my closer encounter with Scottish culture. It was interesting, but it couldn't continue, as I arrived to step into Gerry Mulgrew's place, and he should have continued.”

Kaut-Howson's production of Faithful Ruslan arrives in the year of the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, without which the events that shaped Faithful Ruslan couldn't have happened.

“It is an important centenary,” she says. “It's not necessarily celebrating what happened, but it marks the survival of hope, especially now, when the world is at a crossroads once more. In the play, the final journey of the dog is like Calvary in the bible. It's so moving, and becomes a parallel for that time, but also for our times. The planet is hurtling somewhere, and we still have our ideals, but we don't know where we're going.”

On September 30, a pre show discussion will feature Kaut-Howson alongside broadcaster Kirsty Lang and journalist Misha Glenny, the son of Michael Glenny, who, as well as translating Faithful Ruslan into English, was his era's major translator of Russian work.

“He made a huge contribution to translating Russian literature of that era,” says Kaut-Howson in praise of Glenny. “He translated all of Solzhenitsyn. He translated The Master and Margarita. As well as marking the centenary, that's a celebration in itself.”

Beyond Faithful Ruslan, Kaut-Howsen has her own company, set up to work with the ever expanding UK Polish community, to concentrate on. She also has plans to stage another novel by Vladimov.

“It's already written,” she says, “and I've done it with students. Now I want to do it with professional actors.”

Whether this new venture ends up being seen in Glasgow or elsewhere remains to be seen. The city has nevertheless left its mark on her as it has done previously.

“When I came to Glasgow to audition, I was amazed at how much experimental and political theatre there was there,” she says. “Audiences really want to discuss things there.”

It sounds like there is plenty to discuss in Faithful Ruslan.

“In the end, it makes us feel stronger together in a way that you don't need a simplistic answer to make everything alright,”she says. “There is a complexity in what the dog has been left behind in, and how he couldn't change. If you think socialism is rubbish, that's okay, but you shouldn't abandon your ideals. I don't think socialism is rubbish, but I also know you should never abandon ideals and beliefs. You should never expect theatre to preach to the converted, but you should criticise. Above all else, you should speak from the heart.”

Faithful Ruslan: The Story of A Guard Dog, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry until September 16; Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, September 20-October 7. A pre-show discussion event with Misha Glenny and Kirsty Lang will take place on September 30 at 12.30pm.

The Herald, September 12th 2017



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