Tag Archives: Animal Farm

Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad

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.

The local writer’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 minutes hate caught up with the writer 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:

Animal Farm FlyerAt Arts Club, Seel Street, Liverpool Tuesday 28th-31st October at 7:30pm. Tickets are available online here.

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Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin

Monday 21 January was designated by someone as Orwell Day, in commemoration of the anniversary of the writer’s death. Penguin Books offered a generous discount off the ‘Classic’ editions of his works and various media outlets took the opportunity to highlight his journalism. Lib Com had one of the best examples, this essay on the myth of freedom of the press, as evidenced by the difficulties Orwell experienced in finding a publisher for Animal Farm. The New Statesman went one further and declared Orwell Week, prompting the Spectator to point out that the writer and the NS editors had not always seen eye-to-eye, quoting this from an Orwell Tribune column:

Do remember that dishonesty and cowardice always have to be paid for. Don’t imagine that for years on end you can make yourself the boot-licking propagandist of the Soviet regime, or any other regime, and then suddenly turn to mental decency. Once a whore, always a whore.

As someone who has always preferred to mark Orwell’s birthday, I suggest ignoring all of this hoopla, especially as it seems a reasonable bet that he would have hated the idea of Orwell Day. Instead, pass some time with Emma Larkin’s Finding George Orwell in Burma, a mixture of travel, historical and political writing, which contains much to surprise and inform even the dedicated student of Orwell.

FindingGeorgeOrwellinBurma

Despite having spent over two years living in Asia, before reading this book I had to confess to ignorance of all but the broadest facts of Burma’s recent history. How the country journeyed from the colonial past depicted in Orwell’s Burmese Days to control by its straight-out-of-Nineteen Eighty-Four military junta via the betrayed revolution of Animal Farm is detailed here, not only with factual observations but also through the lives of Burmese people. On her travels through the cities and countryside – ostensibly researching locations that Orwell and his mother’s family lived in and visited – Larkin encounters former prisoners, booksellers, journalists, teachers, the remnants of the Anglo-Burmese population and many others determined to share their stories in spite of the dangers. On expressing her surprise at their vitality, one friend retorts:

What did you expect? That we would all be sitting around on the pavements crying?

That would certainly be one likely response to coping with Burmese levels of doublethink, elements of normality everywhere from the tea shops – ‘an integral part of life’ – to the love of books and reading for pleasure – mention that ‘books are sold… at the night-time book bazaar in Mandalay’ and my ears prick up. Yet those same tea shops are ‘treated by the regime as potential breeding grounds for anti-government activities’ and thus the happy hunting grounds of informers, while one writer tells her that they are:

free to write whatever we want. We’re just not free to have it published.

Visits to dilapidated colonial buildings, old Christian cemeteries and key locations in Orwell’s history carry the story along, including one to the Police Training School – still used to house policemen today – where the young Eric Blair was trained in the methods of surveillance and population control that the military continued so enthusiastically after the British left. As a foreign female tourist, Larkin attracts attention from Burma’s diligent security operatives wherever she goes. In this fascinating interview, she talks about the methods she uses to avoid attracting attention and to protect her sources. (She also selects her five favourite books about Burma if, like me, you are keen on further discovery.)

Larkin seemingly has her own version of doublethink, captivated by Burma’s beauty while despairing that the army’s control can ever be relaxed. It must be like visiting a good friend serving a life sentence in prison, as one interviewee describes the population as the 50 million hostages of the regime. Aung San Suu Kyi – released from house arrest since the publication of the book – and her National League for Democracy perhaps offer some hope. Yet, as she travels, Emma Larkin muses on Winston Smith’s words from Nineteen Eighty-Four,

Where does the past exist?

and their relevancy to Burma, where all mention of the huge uprisings which took place in 1988 and their suppression have been erased from official histories. Restoring the country and its people to ‘normality’ will be no easy task.

A quote from the New York Times on the back of my paperback edition of Finding George Orwell in Burma notes that the book

uses Burma to explain Orwell, and Orwell to explain the miseries of present-day Myanmar.

It is an excellent and engrossing read, informative yet not in a dry way, featuring characters who, although they must be heavily disguised, remain vital and lively companions. I found it to be an illuminating tour through a country which shaped Orwell, informing his most celebrated books and turning him from disaffected colonial policeman into a writer unafraid to denounce totalitarianism, wherever he found it.

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Miliblogging*

If it is true, as H. L. Mencken suggests, that ‘no-one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public’, perhaps it is equally true that no-one ever lost power in the UK by underestimating the stupidity of our electoral system.

The Tories attempt to win an election with a leader who is their own version of Blair-lite, then the leadership election looks likely to throw up the possibility of Labour fighting the next one with a version of Cam-light: David Miliband.

Still, at least there is going to be a contest this time, the powers behind the various Labour thrones having realised there is no sense in allowing another leader to be anointed, after how well that worked out for Gordon Brown.  Yet it is undeniable that Miliband the Elder is the front-runner.  Can I be the only one to find this strange?

David Miliband voted very strongly for the last parliament’s anti-terrorism laws, a stricter asylum system and for replacing Trident.  He was very strongly for ministers being allowed to intervene in inquests, brought in after the Kelly and Menezes inquests caused a few blushes on the government benches.  He was both strongly for the Iraq war and strongly against any kind of inquiry into the Iraq war, an exact reversal of the feelings of many Labour Party members on the subject.  He has some very interesting views on the torture of terrorism suspects and the public’s right to know what its government is up to.

In short, there is a real possibility that, once again, the party established to act for the interests of working people via left-wing principles and ideals may end up with a fairly right-wing leader.  How, one wonders, can Labour have the brass balls to call itself a left-wing party any more?

(For comparison: Nick Clegg was anti the terrorism laws, replacing Trident, ministers intervening in inquests and a stricter asylum system.  David Cameron was against the anti-terrorism measures and ID cards, for the war but also for the investigation and flip-flopped a bit on asylum, as you would expect with the right-wing press breathing down his neck.)

The party of the workers has always been slightly ashamed of its lowly routes, the first Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald was also arguably the first ‘champagne socialist’, much preferring hanging out with Duchesses at their country seats to sitting in pubs singing the Red Flag.  But at least the ‘s’ word did appear then!  Now Dave Semple wonders if Labour and socialism can have anything left to do with each other, while Obsolete sees this attempt at debate as a postponing of the inevitable.

It appears that as we head into our ‘future filled with cuts‘ those alleged to be fighting on ‘our’ side will be arguing straight from a Daily Mail editorial for the shrinking of the welfare state, tougher immigration laws and freeing business from pesky regulation.  As Chicken Yoghurt notes, the dividing lines between our rulers will be shaved until wafer thin.

Still, at least it gives me an excuse to post this intriguing insight into the future of British politics:

Three parties, in different coloured rosettes, with a broadly similar aim of shafting the electorate helping hard-working families.  Four legs good, two legs better!

*Or if I didn’t write the post myself would it be Milivanilliblogging?

[tweetmeme only_single=false http://10mh.net%5D

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