There are those who believe that humans dressing up and pretending to be animals on stage is morally indefensible – rather like a white actor blacking up to play Othello. But the precedent is long established – think Cats, War Horse, A Winter’s Tale, etc. And, more significantly, there is rarely a practical alternative – imagine Antigonus exiting the stage with a real bear behind. Clearly the use of actual animals on stage is fraught with dangers, not least, (excluding piles of steaming poo) that they upstage their human colleagues. The canine star of Pixérécourt’s 1814 The Dog of Montargis was such a success that, for weeks after the premiere, “Have you seen the dog?” was practically the only question posed throughout Paris. There is a wonderful dog in The Sheep Song that is able to bark ferociously and bare its teeth at will and then mildly walk off stage. But I digress, The Sheep Song is not about dogs but about . . .err . . . sheep or, to be more precise, one particular sheep.
Like George Orwell’s Animal Farm, this is a parable of its time and like that book, the protagonist begins/wants to believe that two legs are good and four legs are bad.
This remarkable piece of theatre starts with a giant bell suspended above the audience, being tolled by a man with a real bare behind. We meet our hero, Ovis Orientalis Avis, who is grazing peacefully among a flock of ten real sheep (yes, real sheep, I kid you not). But he is restless, suspecting the other man’s grass is greener (probably literally) and he struggles to stand on his hind legs and walk upright. And, before I go any further, I have to say this was the most realistic portrayal of an animal I have ever seen on a stage.
The sheep cautiously makes his way into the human milieu and we follow his trials and tribulations and his many odd encounters in his brave new world. There is the blind woman with the aggressive guide dog (see above), a shiny matador carrying a bull’s head in a blanket and a puppet in a booth who seems to have overdosed on Viagra. The sheep is overawed by a world that has such people in it, but is always the outsider, always a stranger in a strange land.
Nevertheless, he gradually becomes more humanized, developing human arms and wearing a jacket. But a sheep he is and a sheep he always will be and he continues his journey in hope rather than in expectation. The blind woman gives birth to a baby, half human, half sheep, but it doesn’t survive and spends the rest of the evening preserved in a specimen jar. Our hero carries the glass jar on his fruitless quest even while, like King Kong, he scales city skyscrapers after having had his remaining ovine attributes surgically removed.
This amazing and innovative piece of theatre by FC Bergman and Toneelhuis of Antwerp takes place on a fairly narrow down-stage playing area. Mounted on a series of rarely static conveyor belts the play is a series of wondrous and moving (in both senses of the word) tableaux that travel backwards and forewords across the stage as our hero makes his way through the outlandish world he has chosen to make his own. It is a bit disconcerting at times, like being on a train in a station when you are not sure if it is you or the train next to you that is moving. Visually The Sheep Song is spectacular with lots of smoke, excellent atmospheric lighting and imaginative costumes. Much of the music is provided live on stage by a lone banjo player.
Our friend finally and reluctantly realises that you are what you are and, in his case, that four legs are good and two legs are bad – but is there way back?
I felt sorry for the poor sheep – he must have thought we humans are a pretty weird lot. Michael Hasted 17th September 2022