The language of puppetry: in conversation with puppeteer Toby Olié

We’re all familiar with the maxim “Four legs good; two legs bad.” But what about a scenario with 28 human legs and 90 animal ones? Emma Clegg talks to director, designer and puppeteer Toby Olié about the new production of Animal Farm.

“All animals are equal – but some animals are more equal than others.” So goes one of the most familiar sentences from George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the allegorical story of a group of farm animals who rebel against their farmer, fuelled by the idea of creating a society where all animals are equal, free and happy. The farmyard revolution – a parody of Stalinist Russia which Orwell was criticising – doesn’t end well. His story, first published in 1945, is a political satire showing how inequalities and tyrannies are replicated again and again, whatever the aspirations of those in charge.

Now the story has a new stage production, a touring show that is coming to Theatre Royal Bath from 1–5 March after its launch in Birmingham. Animal Farm is directed by Robert Icke, whose version of 1984 was a smash hit in the West End and on Broadway; features puppetry by Toby Olié, whose credits include War Horse; and is designed by four-time Olivier Award winner Bunny Christie.

Toby had his first meeting with Robert Icke in Sept 2019 – the director introduced the project, explaining that he wanted to use puppets rather than people. “The biggest thing for me from that point was the number of hands available,” says Toby Olié, referring to the planning of the production. There are 10 named characters in the original book, but the new production uses a total of 30 puppets, all created by Toby and his team, with the farmers alone portrayed by actors.

Above: Toby Olié

“I sat down and decided that every pig would be a two-person puppet and then did a tracking document of the whole show, to see if we could stage it with the maximum cast number of 14 people.” The calculations were based on the medium-sized animals (pigs, sheep and dogs) having two puppeteers; smaller animals (chickens, geese and pigeons) controlled by one person and sometimes two to create an expressive movement or elaborate gesture; and Boxer the carthorse with three puppeteers. “It became a game of puppeteer chess!”, says Toby.

The relative sizes of the animals are mostly correct, although the smaller animals such as pigeons and chickens have slightly larger-than-life puppet representations. Toby explains that this is because it’s more effective for the proportion of puppet to puppeteer to favour the puppet. “Boxer the carthorse feels larger than life, but terrifyingly he is pretty much the size of a Drysdale Carthorse. They are just that big. He is absolutely enormous, controlled by three people. And then we’ve got a full-size dairy cow, all the way down to a one-person pigeon, so it’s a real sliding scale of animals.”

“Because we decided to do more characters, we were keen to introduce more variety, so we mixed up some of the species. Clover who is a carthorse in the novel has become a dairy cow. And we’ve made Squeela the pig a female because in the novel all the main pigs are male.”

The puppets are the audience’s way into this story – they have to care about them and invest and believe in them…

“There’s something particularly exciting about the fact that Animal Farm is not a particularly long novel,” Toby comments. “It’s short, sharp and packs a punch. Rob said from the beginning that he didn’t want to turn it into a two and a half hour epic – his dream was to have a show without an interval, one that hits just as hard.” This involved condensing the shifts of time (years pass between chapters), and finding a way of keeping the pace going.
“With War Horse, we had Joey the horse who you follow through the whole show, but in Animal Farm every scene has about eight or more talking central characters that are animal puppets. It’s been an amazing technical challenge.”

War Horse, first performed at the National Theatre in 2007, was a groundbreaking theatrical production featuring life-sized horses, bringing breathing, galloping, charging horses to life on stage. Toby got involved with the production as puppeteer and associated puppetry director while he was still training at the Central School of Speech and Drama. War Horse recharged and reinvented the emotional power of the puppet on stage and spearheaded a whole new world of experimental puppetry (Toby refers to this production as spurring a “Puppet Renaissance”), which Toby has continued to contribute to. “War Horse was the first show where you had a puppet protagonist. I jokingly call it Puppet Hamlet, because when you’re playing the horse you just don’t leave the stage,” he says.

Above: Rayo Patel (Cockerel) in Animal Farm

“I never quite fathomed how deeply invested in those animal characters people would be, and one of the critical responses was how astonishing it is that the puppets bear the emotional weight of an audience for three and a half hours. And that’s what it’s about, that length of emotional investment. It’s the same with Animal Farm; the puppets are the audience’s way into this story – they have to care about them and invest and believe in them as much as they would an actor playing the part.”

After War Horse Toby and Finn Caldwell (who he met on the production) set up Gyre & Gimble, a theatre company specialising in puppetry. Moving forward he made a point of working on more projects with a puppet protagonist driving the narrative. He recollects Meryl Streep saying that she often decides whether to do a project when sent a script by taking her character out of it; if the plot is the same without that character, then she is less interested. Toby says, “I think the same way with puppets. I’ve made lots of beautiful puppets for shows that people have really loved but if you took that puppet out, the story would still be the same.”

The puppets are handmade, all bespoke, created from a clay sculpture that is replicated in a dense foam, which allows it to take impact and not be too brittle. “I come in with drawings and ideas and the team of makers builds a prototype together,” says Toby. “So over the last eight and a half months there has been this sort of animal factory!”

Instead of a marionette or Punch and Judy performance where the puppeteer is invisible, Toby specialises in theatre where puppets and actors are on stage together. “There is something so beautiful in the act of giving a puppet movement and seeing the person pulling the strings. In the initial moments before the revolution in Animal Farm, this is ambiguous when you see the puppets because the puppeteers are in the shadows, but when the animals get liberated so are the puppeteers.

“There’s something wonderful about a puppet peeling back its mechanics, and I think that’s something that Bunny and Rob latched on to in our development workshops. Bunny said she loved the gaps between the ridges that allow them to move and wanted to keep them rather than cover them up. And that was great for me because puppets are so at their best when they need the audience’s imagination to finish them, as well as believe in them.”

Rob, Toby and Bunny had an open collaboration when working together, explains Toby. “So often with puppetry you end up in a trap where the puppet does something that’s already been explained or narrated, but
actually a puppet can show it, so why say it too? And Rob’s been incredible at spotting these moments. One that stands out for Toby relates to a line from Mollie the white mare, ‘Will there still be sugar lumps after the revolution?’

“Rob suggested adapting it to put the most interesting bit at the end of the sentence, so the line changed to, ‘After the revolution, will there be sugar lumps?’ So the heat of the thought is at the end. So he was looking at my kind of puppetry language through his lens.”

Orwell wrote Animal Farm from 1943–44 when the United Kingdom was in a wartime alliance with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany and the story proves itself as relevant than ever – just think of the pigs moving into the farmhouse and having a party while everyone else is working. In Toby’s words, “There is a definite intention on Rob’s behalf to draw parallels to any situation where autocracy or authoritarianism raises its head.”

George Orwell’s Animal Farm, directed by Robert Icke, tours to the Theatre Royal Bath from 1–5 March Tickets from £25;

Featured image: Clover with puppeteers Yana Penrose and Edie Edmundson and Squeela with puppeteers Ailsa Dalling and Matt Churcher | All photography by Manuel Harlen