Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ Arrives at Belgrade Theatre Coventry
The brand new stage adaptation of George Orwell’s classic novel, Animal Farm, is arriving at Belgrade Theatre from 12th – 16th April. The play follows the animals of Manor Farm and tells the story of a revolution and its aftermath, directed by Robert Ike and featuring the puppetry of Toby Olié, the story has been re-imagined by an award-winning creative team making the show a dynamic, daring and contemporary take on a timeless story.
We recently caught up with both puppetry designer and director Toby Olie, and director and script adapter Robert Ike to discuss the new play.
What are the challenges of this show?
Toby: Every character apart from the farmer is an animal. We have over 30 life-sized puppets, from a huge cart horse to tiny pigeons, so it’s a question of how to get maximum range of articulation in so many puppets with only 14 operators. Boxer the cart horse has three operators, but Clover – who we’ve changed from a horse to a cow – can only have two. All of the animal characters talk too, which is a challenge, but we found a really interesting way of making it work: we tell the story using each animal’s physicality but then you hear their dialogue as if their actions are being translated for you. We’re also shifting perspective during the show, so you see moments of high octane action in miniature puppet scale, and the intimate, internal moments with the life-sized puppets. The construction of the animals took eight and a half months – the longest puppet build we’ve ever undertaken.
Is Animal Farm designed for all ages?
Robert: I hope so. It’s not the jolliest of stories, but I think kids enjoy that. We’ll have to see how violent the violent bits are: we discovered in workshops there can be something very depressing and distressing about a puppet being killed. But access is hugely important to me and I’m not sure I’ve ever made anything where I wasn’t conscious of the thought that a 14- or 15-year-old might come and see it and enjoy it. Most people who work in and around theatre got hooked at around that age, including me. And I really trust young people as a sort of boring-ometer [laughs].
What’s the trick of making an animal puppet work?
Toby: In terms of both their design and performance, you want to immerse yourself in the anatomy and physical language of the animal, particularly its emotional indicators like the ears or tail, the difference in gait between a trot and a gallop. For this show, where we are telling a human allegory through animals, we have to decide what of that animal repertoire is helpful and how the articulation and control points of the puppet allow the puppeteers to embody and communicate it visually. Helpfully animals give away their emotions far more quickly than we do, they are far more responsive, immensely emotive things to watch.
Animal Farm was Orwell’s response to Russia’s descent into dictatorship after the Revolution; what’s its relevance today?
Robert: The novel uses animals to think about humans, and the ways in which power structures and hierarchies form, even when everybody has made the conscious decision to get rid of those things. It’s a simple story: the animals have a revolution and clear out a corrupt old hierarchy to give themselves freedom, and then slowly piece by piece a corrupt hierarchy – of pigs – builds its way back again.
In my adult life we’ve not really been blessed with great political leaders in Great Britain – or even confident opposition leaders – although I struggle to see it as tyrannical, like human rule is over the animals. But certainly, we have come to see a more divided politic, more polarization and less empathy. Things feel increasingly more dangerous. The differences feel very real and you do start to hear talk of revolution as a possibility.