ORWELLS CLASSIC: Neil Coppens Animal Farm is set to begin its national tour, starting in Durban.
ORWELLS CLASSIC: Neil Coppens Animal Farm is set to begin its national tour, starting in Durban.

AWARD-winning writer, designer and director, Neil Coppen, will soon stage his new work, an adaptation of George Orwell’s classic, Animal Farm, in Durban, before embarking on a national tour.

Coppen said although his production would have South African flair, Orwell’s themes, characters and ideas would remain unchanged.

Asked about his experience with this classic, Coppen said: “I never studied the book at school and only really came to it about six years ago when I was travelling in South America. I was stuck on a 36 -hour bus trip in Peru and remember being instantly struck by the theatrical potential of the material. My play Tin Bucket Drum had dealt with very similar ‘Orwellian’ themes so it felt like a natural progression for me to tackle this classic,” he said.

“I’m a huge fan of the masters of political satire, particularly Jonathan Swift and George Orwell. I’ve toyed for some time with the idea of South African theatrical adaptations of both Gulliver’s Travels and Animal Farm. The commentary these books make are timeless and pertinent to a South African context – in the way they reflect on the human condition, power, class and the Everyman trying to make sense of the whole mess. It’s the sort of universality and relevance that I strive for in my own work. So with Animal Farm I feel very close to the material and can identify instantly its resonance here in South Africa,” explained Coppen.

Having never seen the production on stage or read other adaptations of it, Coppen said this allowed him to create something that wasn’t derivative: “I had to conceive the novel for the stage from scratch, sifting it through my imagination to envision how it will play out on the stage.

“Before writing the adaptation I read the book several times. Each time I read it a new panic would set in. It became a very daunting task in that Orwell’s story is so epic, there are major battle scenes between animals and humans and over 20 beloved characters to… depict. As I was commissioned (by The Playhouse) to adapt the production for school audiences, I had to find a way to stay true to the text and characters…,” he said.

For Coppen the process was a tricky balancing act.

“I suppose one of the biggest challenges was how do human actors go about portraying a range of farm animals on stage? I wanted to avoid having actors scampering around on all fours snorting and braying… or buried under cumbersome masks and costumes for that matter, so I had to find a way of achieving this.”

Working with choreographer Daniel Buckland and his all-female cast – (Mpume Mthombeni (Napoleon), Mandisa Nduna (Squealer), Zesuliwe Hadebe (Clover), Khutjo Bakunzi-Green (Boxer) and Momo Matsunyane as Snowball – Coppen said they found a way to ‘physicalise’ and embody the animals rather than try to make them too literal.

Asked what he set out to create with this adaptation, Coppen said: “I was commissioned to create a stage production that remained close to the novel so that learners could use it as a sort of study guide.

“Animal Farm’s episodic nature works well in the novel format, but dramatically I had to find a way to pull it together and hone the focus a little. Theatre needs a pace and structure that the novel doesn’t rely on, so it’s about being mindful to the source material but also feeling free enough to interrogate it through an entirely different medium and format. Theatre is also a visual medium so it’s also about working out what to show as opposed to tell.

“I suppose my aim was to excite young audiences about the novel and the theatrical medium itself. I think a large portion of the audience seldom attend theatre so it’s great to remind them what a magical and visceral experience it can be. Our version of Animal Farm doesn’t shy away from the darkness and brutality that lies at the heart of Orwell’s haunting allegory. This is not a ‘cutsey’ Disney story about talking animals! I wanted to keep the elements of satire and parody, but was cautious to never let it slip into pantomime territory,” said Coppen.

On working with Buckland, Coppen said theirs was a dream partnership.

“I had never met him (before Animal Farm), but I did dream one night that we were working on a production together. I e-mailed him the next day and said: ‘You don’t know me… but I had a dream that we worked together and I think we should see it as a sign’. Rather than taking out a restraining order, he responded with ‘Let’s do it’. I could not have done this show without him; he really is the best this country has to offer in terms of movement and choreography.”

• Animal Farm, at The Playhouse Drama Theatre, August 12 to 16 with a week of school’s shows and three public shows that weekend. Booking: 011 057 5088, [email protected] shakexperience.com.