Ivan the Terrier - My Life with the Dogs
This article is from 2009.
The true story of a Russian child who spent two years living with dogs forms the basis of a new play by NIE. Yasmin Sulaiman bones up on My Life with the Dogs
It’s been 20 years since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, but the widespread social problems and national upheavals it ushered in has meant that we’re still dealing with its effects today. Inevitably, the Edinburgh Fringe – at its best, a microcosm of the global arts world – has hosted various theatre companies with pieces that attempt to portray the crises Eastern European psyches have undergone during this time, but few have done so with more success than NIE (New International Encounter), whose play My Life with the Dogs is on its way.
NIE was set up in 2001 by a group of pan-European actors, and made its Fringe debut in 2004 with My Long Journey Home, a play that incorporated live violin and accordion music, puppet shows and a medley of languages. This multi-lingual aspect has been a defining attribute of NIE’s performances, and its ability to provide a multi-faceted perspective on modern Europe is something that artistic director Alex Byrne is particularly proud of. ‘It’s been a sort of guiding principle for our projects that we’re bringing together artists from different countries to work together,’ he says. ‘So in our first show and with My Life with the Dogs, you’ve got UK-based actors, as well as Czech, Norwegian and Belgian actors. We all speak different languages so there’s always a whole range of languages on stage, but we’re constantly thinking about one way to work together.’
My Long Journey Home was followed by the Herald Angel and Total Theatre award-winner Past Half Remembered in 2006 and The End of Everything Ever in 2007. Together, the three make up NIE’s now widely revered European Narratives Trilogy, but it’s their first Fringe performance that Byrne remembers most fondly. ‘We had toured in central Europe, the Balkans and eastern Europe, but had never really performed in the UK before 2004. Performing at the Fringe was such an enormous thing, such a terrifying but exhilarating experience, and I think we were really lucky to get reviewed early on. It opened up whole new possibilities and raised our profile.’
That first Fringe run was made possible by funding from Escalator East to Edinburgh, who are also behind the group’s 2009 appearance. But My Life With the Dogs is something of a departure from NIE’s past work, though it still retains the group’s core focus on modern European society. The play tells the story of Ivan Mishukov, the six-year-old Russian boy who befriended a pack of wild dogs in Moscow and lived with them for two years before being caught by police in 1998, when the Russian economy was in freefall and inflation was at 84%.
Following the incident’s wide newspaper coverage, Byrne learnt more about Mishukov from Michael Newton’s 2002 book Savage Girls and Wild Boys, which foregrounds the boy’s story and purports that, rather than having been abandoned by his mother and alcoholic boyfriend, Mishukov chose living with the dogs in preference to his volatile home life. ‘It’s a really interesting story so it makes a great play,’ notes Byrne. ‘In my mind, it’s also a fascinating example of what happened in a period of Russian history where every social class is experiencing breakdown.’ What’s more, NIE’s desire to stage Mishukov’s story from his perspective may serve to make the play even more intriguing. ‘How can you stage a child’s experience?’ Byrne asks. ‘The fun thing about that perspective is that you don’t need to show the world as it really is, you need to show it the way the child thinks it is. We had to ask ourselves, how do you tell that story?’
My Life with the Dogs was performed at London’s Battersea Arts Centre in April 2008, but much of it has been redeveloped for its Fringe run. And though NIE has performed internationally since its last Edinburgh outing in 2007 – including in Beijing, Shanghai and New York – Byrne still looks forward to the Festival. ‘Performing at the Fringe is an overwhelming and terrifying experience. But after the success of Past Half Remembered, we realised that we were a company with a future.’
My Life with the Dogs, Pleasance Courtyard, The Pleasance, 0131 556 6550, 8–31 Aug (not 11, 18), 5.30pm, £10–£11 (£8.50–£9.50). Previews 5–7 Aug, £5.