This is yet another intriguing, beautiful, and haunting piece by Annex Theatre.
The plot is loosely based on the story of Jemima Puddle-duck, who left the farm and fell into the clutches of a fox while the silly bird was looking for a safe place to lay her eggs. The real Beatrix Potter, who was not only a writer, but an avid scientist and animal breeder, most likely pulled her anthropomorphized characters from observations of the creatures on her farm.
According to Wikipedia’s article on Beatrix Potter:
On childhood holidays in rural Scotland and the north of England, she sketched and kept small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians as pets, sometimes taking them from the wild and contributing to their deaths by disregarding their needs. Some were boiled and their skeletons reconstructed. Ruth MacDonald writes, “This willingness to capture wild animals, either on paper or in a cage, is characteristic of Potter’s frame of mind … to intrude herself on nature was a part of her need to master her surroundings, to exert what little power and possession she could, given that her parents were determined to keep her powerless and impoverished.” MacDonald observes that later in life, Potter “could admire nature without intruding herself upon it or destroying it. But until that point in her life where she felt herself in control, the reader of her journal and the student of her work notes this willingness to destroy, by dissection or disruption, the nature she found around her, to sacrifice it in the pursuit of her art or ownership.” Potter matured into a spinsterish young woman whose parents groomed her to be a permanent resident and housekeeper in their home.
So Beatrix Potter was disturbed, but brilliant. She had a strange childhood, potentially abusive parents combined with an idyllic landscape and hard work on a farm — the emotional difficulty in her stories is a reflection of her life.
The play takes that emotional difficulty and heightens it to an experiential level. Rape, interspecies love, manslaughter of children, cannibalism, murder — Beatrix Potter’s fraught childhood is brought out through disturbing themes that constantly bombard the audience with new and harsh sensory information. It’s not a biographical piece, but a disturbing fairy tale reminiscent of some of the Grimm Brother’s more censored work.
What I found more impressive than the story itself, and even more impressive than the writing (which features some incredible well-turned phrases, so I can only imagine that the script would make a good read), was the acting. The combination of animal and human characteristics brought out in each character was amazing. Danielle Daggerty’s Rebecca had a limp, was shrunken and shrivelled and physically the opposite of Jillian Vashro’s preening Jemima — yet both were very convincing ducks. They weren’t humans pretending to be ducks — instead, Rebecca’s limp and hunch made her waddle like a duck, and her shawl gave her fluttery duck wings; Jemima’s dress had big lace sleeves which she could also flutter like wings, and she held her feet together at a 90 degree angle, reminiscent of duck feet. The dogs were eager to please and said “yes ma’am” a lot; the fox was dapper and clever; and the badger was dirty, writhing, sneaky.
If one were to stage Animal Farm, this is how it should be done.
Yes, the play was disturbing; yes, it was emotionally difficult; no, it did not have a happy ending. But it is the kind of play that deserved to become a classic.