“Working on Animal Farm has reminded me just how exhilarating collaborative work can be.” Director, Daniel Lammin and The Bloomshed have recruited a mighty team to bring their latest contemporary adaptation of Orwell’s Animal Farm to the stage. Daniel reflects on the classic novel and his experience directing a show for The Bloomshed for the fIrst time.
Q: What it been like revisiting and rediscovering a classic such as Orwell’s Animal Farm?
A: Animal Farm is one of those texts I think we all feel a strong affinity for whether we’ve read it or not; my first experience with it was through the 1954 British animated film when I was a child. To a certain degree though, it’s also a text that has been sanitised or weaponised away from its original intent. I revisited the novel before we started work on this production, and I was immediately struck by how devastatingly simple and deeply horrifying a work it is. Orwell fills it with incredible ideas, but it’s also a book that hits you on a visceral, emotional level as well as an intellectual one. Within the fairy tale construct is a deep, resonant howl of anger, and a far more complex one that the “Communism is bad” catchphrase we’ve reduced it to.
The real thrill though was then seeing what James Jackson and Elizabeth Brennan had written and seeing Orwell through a completely different lens. I think my love and admiration for the book has grown through seeing how James and Lizzie have reinterpreted, deconstructed and interrogated it. It’s very easy for us to say that Animal Farm is still relevant, but what they’ve done is justified why it will always be relevant.
Q: Can you take us through the process of adapting a novel for the stage? What do you look out for? How closely did you work with writers Elizabeth Brennan and James Jackson? A: When we began on this project, I asked James and Lizzie to describe the way The Bloomshed works and they said it wasn’t something you can explain, you have to discover it for yourself. When I say this was a collaborative process, I mean that in the truest sense of the word. James and Lizzie, along with Justin Gardam the dramaturg, are the ones who ultimately put the words on the page, but the generating of those words and ideas are the work and responsibility of every member of the production – performers, designers, writers, directing team, management team, everyone. You aren’t so much encouraged as expected to contribute, and what that means is you have a far more complex, rich and surprising adaptation that I think you would have through one authorial voice. It has been a bit of a ride for myself and the company, being the first external director they’ve ever brought on to a Bloomshed project, but where we’ve ended up as a team, all of us involved in Animal Farm, is one of the most exciting, challenging and fulfilling creatives experiences I’ve had in a good long while. A lot of it has been trying every crazy idea that comes into any of our heads and seeing what works, with everyone in the room having a voice. What you’ll see on stage is maybe the fourth or fifth pass we’ve done at the show in terms of staging, and that hasn’t been due to a lack of decisiveness. It’s because we as a company, with James and Lizzie as leaders and provocateurs, want to make sure we’ve tried everything we can before settling on what might be the right choice.
Q: Tell us a bit about the ensemble cast you have assembled. A: When we began, we had the established Bloomshed ensemble of actors, but because the company had never worked on this scale before, finding new actors to join the ensemble was imperative. Animal Farm needed performers who were also theatre makers, who would contribute to the process and have the right amount of anarchy and a healthy understanding of comic timing. The ensemble we’ve ended up with is the kind you dream of – rigorous, dedicated, ridiculous, incredibly talented and highly professional, and they’ve all weathered, not only the constant need to change and shift and shatter the text, but the disruptions of two lockdowns and rehearsing on different platforms and at a breakneck speed. They’ve come together as a formidable creative force, so much so that there’s no discernible difference between the original Bloomshed actors and those who have just joined on this project. They’re a single unit, and one who cares deeply about every single aspect of the production.
Q: What have you most enjoyed about this project?
A: Working on Animal Farm has reminded me just how exhilarating collaborative work can be. It’s very easy as a director to get caught in the trap of believing you have to have all the answers. Before the pandemic hit, when I was able to work regularly, I’d become very comfortable with the openness of collaboration, but returning to work after such a long break, I’d become paranoid that I needed to have every answer for every question myself. Relearning that collaborative spirit has been a trial by fire, but the results have spoken for themselves in the room, and what I have loved so much is seeing the incredible things these artists have come up with, and being able to help facilitate that. Making performance is about people, and this has been such a valuable reminder of that, particularly after a year of being apart.
It has also been a joy getting to work with this team, some of whom I’ve worked with many times and others I’ve wanted to for years. A large portion of the team are Monash University graduates, multiple generations going back as early as the start of the 2000’s. We’ve all graduated through the university theatre department, but more importantly, through Monash Uni Student Theatre and the mentorship of Yvonne Virsik and Jason Lehane. There’s a common language, a common understanding of what we all think performance can be, and that has been made even richer by the extraordinary people in the team not from Monash, who have introduced new philosophies into the room. I’m awfully proud of all of them, and of the work we have been making together.
Q: For those who have not experienced a show by the Bloomshed Ensemble, what can they expect?
A: This is my first time working with the company, but I’ve been watching their work since they started making theatre in their back shed. What I’ve seen is intellectually rigorous work that shatters your concept of theatrical form and decorum, as well as being riotously funny and thoroughly entertaining. I feel like I learn something about what theatre can be with every show of theirs I’ve seen. I can only hope that Animal Farm does the same.
If we do our job right, expect to be exhausted, gobsmacked, bamboozled, confused, exhilarated, horrified, inspired and energised. Expect to have your brain blown right through the back of the theatre.
ANIMAL FARM by The Bloomshed after George Orwell 18-28 August (postponed)
(Photo credits: Profile photo by Sarah Walker, rehearsal photos by Aleks Corke)