Going the Whole Hog with Ivan Heng!

Ivan Heng – director, movement director and set designer – shares his ideas and inspiration behind Wild Rice’s classic and profoundly relevant production of Animal Farm. Warning: mild spoilers ahead!
Ivan Heng painting the set of Animal Farm

Ivan painting the set of Animal Farm

This production of Animal Farm is adapted from George Orwell’s classic novel. How has the book helped inform Wild Rice’s version of this story?

As a starting point for every production we’ve done since 2002, I spend the first week of rehearsals reading the novel together with the cast. Each time we do, I’m impressed all over again by Orwell’s beautiful and succinct prose, and how masterful he was at marrying art and political commentary.

I also always ask the cast to share their thoughts on how the novel relates to their own lives, and to who we are as a society. As always, we discover what a moving, relevant and universal story Animal Farm is. Here in modern-day Singapore, we might not fully grasp Orwell’s allegorical references to Soviet Russia and the Russian Revolution of 1917, but we can easily map the novel’s power dynamics onto our own histories and cultures. For Orwell, Napoleon – a pig with authoritarian aspirations – represented Joseph Stalin. Who are our Napoleons today?

Cast of Animal Farm reading the Animal Farm book
Ivan with the cast of Animal Farm reading the novel of Animal Farm

Tell us more about this stage adaptation by Ian Wooldridge. How did you come across it in the first place?

Ian cast and directed me in the title role of William Shakespeare’s Richard III for my drama school’s graduation show in Scotland. We forged a deep connection while working through that play together. When the production ended, he handed me a typewritten, photocopied script that was his adaptation of Animal Farm, and said, “You play tyrants well.” He thought I should play Napoleon!

With dramatic scenes that jump off the page, Ian’s adaptation is faithful, vivid and condenses the story to its very essence. At the same time, there’s a lot of room for a director or company’s imagination and interpretation. It was at the top of my list of plays I wanted to do 10 years later, when I was starting Wild Rice.

What’s your favourite thing about taking Animal Farm from the page to the stage?

The wonderful thing about stage adaptations like this production of Animal Farm is that it turns the solitary experience of reading a novel into an event that is shared. In our theatre, which is so intimate, you can practically hear and feel what the audience is thinking – even in the silent, sad or moving moments. It’s electrifying.

Also, the characters in our version speak with a range of Singaporean accents, which makes it all so much more immediate. Many audience members have shared how it makes the story cut even closer to the bone. Interestingly, we’ve toured this production to places like Hong Kong, New Zealand and Australia, and no matter where it goes, audiences relate the show to their own political situation.

Cast of Animal Farm 2022
Cast of Animal Farm
L-R: Audrey Luo, Dwayne Lau, Suhaili Safari, Vester Ng, Erwin Shah Ismail, Tia Andrea Guttensohn

This is an intensely physical production – all six actors on stage must embody an entire barnyard of animals. What work have you done with your cast to help them perform this show both safely and effectively?

Animal Farm is definitely one of the most physically and vocally demanding shows I’ve ever directed. In the very first production of this show, 20 years ago now, I developed a movement vocabulary with the original company of actors. I wanted to dispense with more traditional costumes, masks and make-up to demonstrate that there’s a very fine line separating us and the animals.

As a result, it’s a backbreaking, physically punishing process. Every actor who’s been in this show has had to literally get down on all fours in the quest to breathe life into their characters. I know the pain intimately myself, because I used to demand it of former cast members like Lim Yu-Beng and Pam Oei – “Get down lower! Lower!” When I played Napoleon in a subsequent run, they’d get their own back at me: “LOWER, Ivan! Can’t you get any lower?”

For this production, we brought Jasmine Xie, a physiotherapist who’s also a performer, on board. It’s the least we can do in a play like this, where the cast practically runs a half-marathon at every show. Jasmine has coached our actors, helping them to understand their bodies so they can play all of their myriad characters in a safe, sustainable way on stage.

Jasmine Xie working with the cast of Animal Farm

The set for Animal Farm is simple but effective. Why did you choose to go in a minimalist rather than realistic direction? And how has the show changed in Wild Rice’s thrust-stage theatre?

The stage is, quite literally, bare. It’s an empty space, and this is rooted in Asian theatre tradition. We didn’t feel the need to recreate a quintessentially British farmyard, with haystacks and barns – we can leave it up to the audiences’ imaginations.

The commandments that the animals all obey is writ large within the space – the writing is literally on the wall. I’ve handpainted every single wall of commandments in every production of Animal Farm we’ve staged, here in Singapore and overseas.

You might also spot some huge air-conditioning ducts in the show – an allusion to how Singapore is popularly described as an ‘air-conditioned state’.

This is the first time we’re performing this production on a thrust stage, which allows us to break the fourth wall because it doesn’t exist! With our audiences sharing the same room and space as our actors, they become animals too – partaking of apples like the pigs, or bleating like sheep, as the occasion calls for it!

Cast of Animal Farm on stage
Cast of Animal Farm on stage

The costumes and make-up for this production are simple and yet arresting. What can you tell us about the inspiration behind them?

Lai Chan is a preeminent fashion designer in Singapore, whose first costume design was my ballgown in Emily of Emerald Hill (2000). His concept for the original Animal Farm, which remains part of the production to this day, is brilliant. He pointed out that all of these animals are wounded. That’s why their costumes are primarily bandages – the actors are sewn into their bandages backstage before every show.

The nude colour palette of the bandages mimic flesh and skin so the actors look naked (recalling one of the commandments – “No animals shall wear clothes”). But he also stripped in pops of red to suggest the wounds and injuries sustained from hard labour. It’s interesting to see how design choices can hit home in different ways. During our very first production, we had people accusing us of ripping up the Singapore flag!

As for the make-up – we block out the actors’ eyebrows so that they appear less human. The animals are also quite dirtied-up, but the markings on their bodies are bold, black brushstrokes inspired by Chinese calligraphy. It’s almost as if the writing on the walls is also on their bodies. Bobbie Ng, from The Make Up Room, created the look. Her specially formulated body paint is sweat- and smudge-proof, and then sealed by hairspray. The actors have to shower four times at home to get it off!

What can you tell us about the impressive live musical accompaniment provided by Riduan Zalani?

Riduan is the heartbeat of Animal Farm. Inspired by my Chinese opera training, I wanted a percussive rhythm threaded throughout the show. It adds tension, drama and dimension to what’s happening on stage, especially when the power dynamics shift. Suddenly, the animals are marching to the beat of a drum – sometimes in celebratory joy, other times in militaristic oppression. Riduan plays a staggering range of instruments – including familiar ones from our region like the flute, bells, gongs and drums – as well as items that become instruments in his hands, like a massive oil drum.

Riduan Zalani on percussions at Animal Farm
Riduan Zalani drumming up a storm at Animal Farm

How would you say this 20th-anniverary production of Animal Farm differs from earlier ones?

You’ll have to come and see for yourself! But I will say that we’ve recalibrated the tone of the show for the times we currently live in. In the past, Napoleon and Squealer were played more like dictatorial army officers – scolding the animals to get their point across. But in 2022, they are different beasts. In this TikTok era, they are also polished, charming and sly.

Finally – what do you hope audiences take with them from your production of Animal Farm?

Apart from entertaining our audiences and making them laugh, we hope it also makes them think about the society we all live in.

This is a story about power, and how absolute power can corrupt absolutely. So we should be asking ourselves the same questions Orwell was asking when he first wrote the book. Who do we give power to? What kind of constraints should be imposed on that power? And what is the responsibility we have when we ourselves gain power?

Animal Farm is a reminder that we should approach our lives and our leaders with a healthy scepticism – ask questions about everything that concerns you, and don’t just blindly accept the answers you’re given.

Ivan with the cast of Animal Farm at the backstage
Ivan backstage with the cast of Animal Farm

Interview By: Shawne Wang

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