Lyn Gardner on Theatre and Performance: The Human and the Live

Children and animals on stage. There’s a lot of it around. The old maxim may be that in theatre you should “never work with children or animals”, but contemporary theatre-makers are not taking a blind bit of notice.

The Italian theatre-maker Romeo Castellucci has given us toddlers encased in glass cubes and a man being savaged by Alsatians in Inferno, while cats wander across the stage in Tragedia Endogonidia. At the Royal Court, a rabbit made an appearance in Alice Birch’s Anatomy of a Suicide and there was a cast of six goats (plus humans) in Syrian writer Liwaa Yazji’s play Goats staged in 2017. The animals ambled about the stage and occasionally nibbled the props. Baby chicks scampered across the stage during a key moment in This Beautiful Future at the Yard. You bet the audience melted.

Cabaret artist Lady Rizo brought her own baby on stage during her show Multiplied, and a few years ago Quarantine made a show that was exactly what it says in the title: Old People, Children and Animals. Only the animals, which included a parrot, were trained performers.

The fashion for babies on stage was neatly sent up by Ella Hickson in her play The Writer at the Almeida in 2018. There was a knowing moment which offered a wry nod to the way the audience at Jez Butterworth’s London and Broadway hit, The Ferryman, cooed at the baby and delighted in the goose.

At the Edinburgh fringe in 2016, Come Look at the Baby invited an audience to pay to watch nothing but a seven-month-old baby in a performance space. Who knows whether the baby had given its consent or who was getting the profit? These are questions that must be asked. Does it matter that the baby does not know it is performing? Does the mere presence of the audience affect the way the baby behaves so that instead of just playing, it plays to the audience? Oh, and can the audience ask for their money back if the baby is asleep? Or in such circumstances is the baby still giving a performance?

The history of live animals used for entertainment is a very long one, and the practice of performing animal acts in circuses has continued even into this century despite qualms about the morality of treating animals in this way. Shakespeare included a dog, the scene-stealing Crab, in his early play, Two Gentlemen of Verona. It is a non-speaking role but has definitely been a barking one in some revivals I’ve seen.

But modern sensibilities and concerns about animal welfare mean that when animals do appear on stage it raises questions about not just their wellbeing but the ethics of their very presence. Live owls were dropped from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child after protests during preview performances, and after welfare issues were raised, a goldfish was removed from the bowl in which the Duke of Clarence was drowned in Jamie Lloyd’s modern-dress revival of Richard III in 2014.

Writing in Theatre and Animals, Lourdes Orozco describes After Sun by Roderigo Garcia which was performed in Barcelona in 2001. Halfway through the performance, two live rabbits were produced from out of a box and an actor mimed sex acts with them. A number of audience members walked out in protest at the abuse of the animals, but when a hamburger was later cooked on stage nobody batted an eyelid. Orozco suggests that:

The spectators could not relate to the body of an animal that was no longer visible. The animal had become food, and that, somehow, seemed more acceptable than the mistreatment of live rabbits.

The question of how we view animals was also raised in Fevered Sleep’s 2017 piece Sheep Pig Goat, created as part of the Wellcome Collection’s Making Nature Exhibition, in which human artists performed for sheep, pigs and goats while human spectators watched the encounter. Fevered Sleep’s co-founder and artistic director David Harradine, a vegan, deliberately chose animals commonly found on the dinner table in a piece that considered whether we might think differently about roast lamb or pork if we watch sheep and pigs getting excited by music or dance.

Like having the TV on in a room, the presence of a small child or animal on stage can be distracting. When comic Trygve Wakenshaw performed with his one-year-old son in Trygve vs a Baby all eyes were on the child, who of course repeatedly failed to do what his dad wanted him to do. It introduced an element of 'liveness', unpredictability and peril into the proceedings. In some performances of Quarantine shows featuring small children, there have been evenings when the children have refused to take part. Their choice is always respected, and the structure of a show is designed to support that. Animals used in performance do not have that choice.

The theatre-maker Chris Goode has often talked about ‘The Cat Test’ which he equates with the idea of taking a canary down a mine to test for the presence of carbon monoxide. But the Cat Test checks for the presence of liveness. Goode describes it thus:

An ordinary domestic cat is released into the midst of a theatre event, and if the event can refer to and/or accommodate the cat without its supporting structures breaking down – the structures of the event, not of the cat – then the event is said to be ‘live’.

Goode doesn’t just talk the theory, he has used it: back in 2008 in Sisters, a version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters at the Gate Theatre, rabbits were released on stage during Act IV, keeping both actors and audience literally and metaphorically on their toes. The introduction of animals on stage can have unexpected consequences: the 1972 Drury Lane production of Gone with the Wind became more famous for the horses who defecated throughout the burning of Atlanta than its drama. The horses, of course, were just being horses and doing what horses do, and part of the appeal of including either children or animals or both in performance is that often – unless they have been to stage school – they behave on stage with a hypnotic lack of self-consciousness. They are simply themselves, and often in the act of being themselves, they become more than themselves, a kind of distilled version.

In Harradine’s An Infinite Line, produced as part of the Brighton Festival in 2008, a horse stands unblinkingly through a performance in which humans constantly try to shape nature. Of course, they fail, but the horse’s presence, his huge bulk and sheer horsiness in an enclosed space, is a constant reminder that nature is powerful and humans small and insignificant.