Adapt and Adaptability

Over 40 years since he first adapted George Orwell’s classic novel for the stage, Ian Wooldridge is in town for Wild Rice’s 20th-anniversary production of Animal Farm. He chats with us about why and how he adapted the book himself, and what it’s been like working with Ivan Heng for over three decades.
Ian Wooldridge at Wild Rice @ Funan

Why and when did you decide to adapt this classic novel into a stage play?

It was actually for a rather pragmatic reason. Back in 1978, I had just become the Artistic Director of TAG Theatre Company. This was the outreach arm of Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, and one of our responsibilities was to take theatre into schools. We were a free service, funded by money from the government in the form of grants.

The first thing I did when I started work was to find out what books were being read in schools, and Animal Farm was in the top five. And so, we decided to adapt the novel for the stage – students were reading it in schools all over the UK, which meant there would be plenty of demand for a theatrical adaptation of it.

In your long career in the theatre, you have worked primarily as a director. How did you end up adapting Animal Farm yourself?

I would call it a happy accident. I had initially approached three different writers to adapt the novel for us. But, for various reasons, it didn’t work out with any of them. By this point, it was October and I was due to start rehearsals in January, so I thought, “I’m going to have to do this myself.”

After reading the book several times, I literally sat down with several blank sheets of paper and a pen and set about creating scenes – which was interesting for me to do because Orwell’s novel contains barely any dialogue; it’s entirely in narrative form.

Script of Animal Farm from 2010
Animal Farm script from Ian to Ivan

What was the most challenging aspect of adapting the novel for you?

As with any process of adaptation, you have to make decisions about what to include and what to leave out. I sadly could not include the cat, who is such a delightful character in the novel – always there when there’s food to be had, and not when there’s work to be done! That’s why I’ve dedicated the published play to the cat, “wherever she is”, because I was very regretful about leaving her out!

This was just one of many decisions I made that had as much to do with my directing the piece as writing it. I had a limited budget to work with, and so I knew ahead of time that I could only have six principal actors in the cast. Including the cat meant I’d have had to figure out how to double the character with another animal in the show.

It’s also why the stage directions are as economical as they are. Sometimes, playwrights try to exert control and make their play as actor-proof and director-proof as possible with more stage directions. I left it, more or less, as a blank canvas for subsequent companies to work out what they want to do with the main events in the play. My stage direction for the revolution in the play is, simply, “The Revolution takes place.”

How did Animal Farm grow from its beginnings as a play for schools?

The first incarnation of the play was much shorter – we had to keep it to under an hour because that was the slot we’d get in schools. We’d have an hour and a half to bump in, perform the play and get out again.

But then we discovered that there was demand for it outside of schools – that you could take it into a classroom of nine-year-olds and it would work, just like it would if you took it into a roomful of 90-year-olds.

So we extended the production and started performing it in theatres. We had to negotiate the copyright and work out royalty payments at this point, since that wasn’t necessary when it was performed for free in schools.

It took much longer for the play to finally be published by Nick Hern Books in 2004 – they got on board after realising that the play is one of two stage adaptations that has been officially recognised by the Orwell Estate. It’s since been reprinted seven times and, as you know, taken on a life of its own internationally!

Why do you think Animal Farm still resonates today?

I think the piece – both the novel and this adaptation – stands the test of time because it acts as a warning to all of us that we have to be very, very watchful of the people in power. There’s a universality to Animal Farm that extends beyond its origins as an allegory of the Russian Revolution of 1917, in which Napoleon, a pig with authoritarian ambitions, is meant to represent Joseph Stalin.

When we first did this show in the early 1980s in Scotland, our young school audiences knew nothing about the historical context. We asked them who they thought Napoleon could be – they said Margaret Thatcher, the UK’s then Prime Minister, or former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. More recently, after Donald Trump was elected President in 2016, the productions of Animal Farm increased across America – and, in some of these, Napoleon was wearing a red baseball cap.

So I think we will always be learning from it – and that’s a testament to Orwell’s genius in writing Animal Farm.

You’ve been friends and colleagues with Ivan Heng for over 30 years. Do you recall how you first met?

I auditioned him! I had been invited by the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama – now known as the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland – to come and direct one of two Shakespeare plays to be performed by the graduating class of actors that year. I would be directing Richard III, and the other director was set to stage The Merchant of Venice.

At the joint auditions, the only requirement was for the students to perform a bit of Shakespeare; they didn’t have to come in with a piece from the two plays. And most student actors would hedge their bets – perhaps do something from Hamlet or another play, so as not to attempt a character and fail on the spot.

Not Ivan Heng! The moment he walked in the door, he laid claim to the role he wanted: Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. He had a skull cap on, a shawl draped around his shoulders and a black book – meant to represent the Torah – in his hands.

Within my first minute of encountering him, I got a sense of who he was as an artist – a very vivid impression that has stayed with me until this day. Ivan is a fine actor, and a very decisive and committed one too. He makes big choices and he sticks to them.

So did he get the role?

Not the one he had his heart on, but I would say he got the one he deserved!

For whatever reason, the other director decided to pass on casting Ivan as Shylock. He insisted he could not see Ivan in the role. I remember giving him one final chance: “I’m going to ask you one more time. Are you sure? Because if you don’t want him, I do. And not only that, he’s playing Richard III for me!”

Ivan was so surprised by the casting news that he apparently left the room after the announcement and threw up in the loo – he was so shocked!

But he was fantastic as Richard III, playing not only an English king but one of the most brutal, amoral, grotesque characters ever created for the stage. I distinctly remember telling him, “You play tyrants well.” And, ultimately, we brought this production back home for Ivan – it was also staged here at the Jubilee Hall in Raffles Hotel!

What has it been like for you collaborating with Ivan over the years?

It’s been an absolute total joy. My relationship with Ivan is the longest and probably most fulfilling one in my working life.

I can totally trust him when it comes to Animal Farm – which doesn’t apply to every director by any means! He has impeccable taste and instincts, which I knew from my work with him as an actor. He also brings so much of himself to his work. He’s a very joyous person, and he has wit and humour and charm in abundance. He infuses Animal Farm with that, as well as his political intelligence. He captures the nightmare, the melancholia, the tragedy of the piece too. I’ve enjoyed sitting in on his notes sessions with the cast. He makes them think about the work in a very three-dimensional way,and that’s good in a director. He knows how to lead a company.

Animal Farm has since become one of Wild Rice’s signature productions and has even travelled overseas to great acclaim. What does this production of the play mean to you?

It means an enormous amount to me, because this production proved that the play could transfer to another culture entirely and still be relevant. This was thrilling to me, because Animal Farm is, in a sense, a piece of work with a very English sensibility, in terms of its love of the pastoral and the English countryside.

Getting to watch this production through the years has shown me how Orwell’s novel, and how this adaptation, has actually become more relevant over time. We’re more divided than ever as a society in England, and the political climate all over the world has become more extreme too. So it’s been fascinating to see how audiences connect to its wit and the nightmarish elements in it – how it becomes different with each production. And, of course, Wild Rice has taken this production to Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand, so it’s been embraced by audiences in other cities and cultures too.

When Ivan first approached me about doing the show again, I had asked if there was any chance of my coming over to see it, as I did in 2002 and 2010. But, at the time, COVID was rife and it didn’t seem possible. I’m so glad things have changed since – I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to be here and to watch this 20th-anniversary production with a whole new group of actors, in this beautiful theatre that Wild Rice calls home. It’s very moving.

Ian and Ivan with the cast of Animal FarmL-R (Back): Suhaili Safari, Erwin Shah Ismail, Ian Wooldridge, Ivan Heng, Thomas LimL-R (Front): Tia Andrea Guttensohn, Dwayne Lau, Vester Ng, Audrey Luo, Riduan Zalani
Ian and Ivan with the cast of Animal Farm
L-R (Back): Suhaili Safari, Erwin Shah Ismail, Ian Wooldridge, Ivan Heng, Thomas Lim
L-R (Front): Tia Andrea Guttensohn, Dwayne Lau, Vester Ng, Audrey Luo, Riduan Zalani

Interview By: Shawne Wang

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