Orwell’s pioneering fable – Animal Farm – has been translated into many different formats, including cartoon, radio and theatre. It is a testament of the greatness of the tale that it can be so adaptable. Now a stage version of Orwell’s seminal work by Laurence Wilson comes to Liverpool.
Laurence Wilson’s catalogue of work for theatre, television, film and radio includes: Urban Legend, Lost Monsters, Cardboard Guitar Man, Blackberry Trout Face, Tiny Volcanoes, Scouseland and Surf’s Up. His material has been produced by The Liverpool Everyman, Paines Plough, 20 Stories High, Menagerie Theatre, and Dukes Theatre Lancs. Blackberry Trout Face won Best New Play for Young People, the Brian Way Award in 2010.
ten million hardbacks caught up with Laurence Wilson to talk about translating Animal Farm from the page to the stage.
10mh: Why did you choose to adapt Animal Farm and what are your thoughts on the book?
The chance to adapt Animal Farm came to me from Tell Tale Theatre Company. They had received funding from the BBC to commission a writer to write them a new play. A first for them and they collectively decided that they wanted to tackle Animal Farm. They contacted me and other writers and asked us to pitch our take on an adaptation.
I first read the book when I was about nine or ten and didn’t realise it was about the Russian Revolution and Communism. I was continually surprised and dismayed at how dark the story kept going. I kept waiting for Snowball to come back and save the day but of course that doesn’t happen and it was a great lesson for me about the reality of life and power, hopes and dreams.
I read the book many more times over the years. I’d wanted to adapt a book for some time and Animal Farm seemed the perfect one for me and so I made sure my pitch was really strong and it worked. I felt that the dark humour that I write was suited to the job and wanted to be as faithful as possible, whilst at the same time injecting a bit of me into it.
The book still stands up today, not just as analogy of the Russian Revolution but as a warning on how power corrupts, about the human condition to mess it all up and how easily we are conned and manipulated as people. The media do a good job of it these days.
10mh: What was your favourite part of the tale to adapt?
The arguments between Snowball and Napoleon were great fun to write but I think the scene where the porkers are executed and then followed by other animals was great. I tried it a few different ways and I think we have something truly gruesome and shocking now.
I also enjoyed writing scenes that are not main features in the book, such as Farmer Jones prepping the other farmers before the Battle of the Cowshed and the pigs getting drunk and how that makes them behave. It was great to bring in scenes to the company that had a flavour of their improvisations.
10mh: Do you think Orwell’s piece speaks to a contemporary audience and if so why?
Like I say, the theme is timeless. It was originally written about the Russian Revolution but it stands up today. Squealer’s character draws comparisons to the media and how the media feeds us a diet of bullshit and twists the truth to suit the establishment. Just like Boxer and the other animals, the working class are still being walked over by the rich and powerful.
The austerity measures being meted out by the coalition are not unlike the rationing, increased hours and loss of leisure and community spirit the pigs inflict upon the working animals on the farm. Benjamin represents so many of us who are intelligent enough to know things are wrong, that we are being used and cheated and yet choose to do little to nothing about it.
10mh: If you had to be a farmyard animal, what would you be?
I’d be a sheep dog, they always look happy and they are not food but they do have their pups taken from them and they may end up tied to a stone and drowned when they are too old to be useful.
10mh: What challenges did you find trying to translate the page into a stage adaptation?
I think other adaptations have gone down the narration route but the company and I didn’t want to have any narration at all, which meant creating lots of dialogue and realising scenes that aren’t in the book or only briefly painted. I read and reread the book over and over and wrote down every significant moment and all the lovely details about mangle-wurzels and the pigs learning to read from a children’s book.
I would have the book open on the area I was adapting and keep going back to it as I went, which worked well for me but meant that I had a first draft that was way overlong at more than 30,000 words. I cut it down by more than half over the next two drafts. Tell Tale also did lots of workshops which I attended, in which the actors improvised under Emma’s direction, and that gave me lots of ideas about how to approach scenes.
10mh: Describe your writing studio/area you work in and do you have any particular rituals when working?
I write in my little studio space, surrounded by my beloved Doctor Who figures (Classic Period) and I try to get started early in the morning, as that’s when my brain works best. I try to get on a roll and just keep on rolling with it, as long as I can, allowing myself to be free, and adventurous, and dangerous.
My guitar is handy, so that when I get stuck or need a rest I pick it up and play for a few minutes before returning to the script. And I drink ridiculous amounts of coffee. Sometimes I play music in the background to help create a mood. I try to inhabit the characters, to find their voices and I act them out a bit.
10mh: A favourite quote/philosophy/phrase?
‘All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.’
Those words broke my heart as a child, one who though he was reading a fairy tale with a happy ending. Our whole civilization is based on that philosophy.
Tell Tale Theatre Company present Animal Farm, adapted by Laurence Wilson:
At Arts Club, Seel Street, Liverpool Tuesday 28th-31st October 2014 at 7:30pm. Tickets were available online here.
I’m jealous. I ‘d love to see it, but Liverpool is a bit far to go from Seattle.
Great interview JM. I loved seeing the opening night of Lawrence Wilson’s adaptation of Animal Farm and Tell Tales Theatre production: good characterisation, quirky live music and technically very atmospheric including the smell of Chappie!
The Arts Club is a brill venue like the old Everyman Theatre.
Me too, Tom – it’s a bit too far from Tokyo! Liverpool has so many great venues and people working within them.
Interesting concept. My pet peeve: I hate when they take cyrillic letters and use them in English words to look “soviet” or whatever. If you read Russian, it’s just silly looking. Otherwise, really compelling image on the flyer.