Everyone knows the story of Animal Farm. Since its publication in 1945, Orwell’s allegorised history of the Soviet Union as a farmyard cautionary tale, has occupied the status of part national treasure, part school syllabus essential. And yet, the Exeter University Theatre Company’s dramatic adaptation effortlessly excels at keeping the story relevant and fresh. Powerful acting, incredibly effective set design and puppetry, and relentless energy, all combine to make this a mesmerising and memorable production.
One of the most impressive elements of the production was the music. It was all composed by Exeter second year English student, Daniel Wakefield, who also conducted and performed the music live on stage with his band alongside the actors. Daniel’s band is small, with just three musicians. And yet, between them they master a vast range of instruments including guitar, saxophone, violin, and harmonica. The stripped back and sparse instrumentation effectively mirror the spare set design. Nestled amongst the scaffolding which made up the set, the band acted almost like a second narrator, guiding and peering in on the action. Drawing influences from indie rock, jazz, folk music, classical, and more experimental genres, the music perfectly rendered the farmyard animals’ own conflicted and complex emotions: a troubled nostalgia for the past, and the reckless hope for the future, which end gradually and inevitably in despair.
Highlights included the trial scene, with the menacing and harsh guitar sound which builds to a powerful climax. I also particularly liked the song sung by James Bowen as Napoleon, where he remembers being runt of the litter. Despite Napoleon’s tyrannical and menacing character, the song drew out his more sentimental side, in a way that manages to be both endearing and humorous, but ultimately deeply disturbing.
For Daniel’s first hand at composing for theatre, it’s incredible that he was able to produce a collection of pieces that are not only impressive works of music in themselves, but were also so sensitive and complimentary to the story performed on stage.
The play runs until this Saturday, so make sure not to miss it. For more information click here.
I caught up with Daniel after the opening night to chat more about his music.
Tell me about the process of composing music for theatre. Where do you start?
For me, it was essential to have fun with the anthemic roots of the story. Revolution culture has at its core rousing group displays of ideology, and so the tunes Beasts Of England and Our Land Was Once A Forest became central points of orbit for the rest of the score.
How well acquainted with the story of Animal Farm were you before starting work on the music
Animal Farm is so well loved amongst the populous. The story often serves as the first time many of us will interact with metaphor and symbolism, and political ideology too. One thing I often lament though is the didactic alignment of the story with its soft historical rooting. There’s nothing charming in making a 1:1 comparison with the story’s characters, and in that vein, the music serves to further alienate a story in desperate need of alienation. My musical education was relatively classical, but the gentle dissonance between grandiose orchestral composition and my adoration for the golden indie years of the noughties found a pleasing home in the freedom of this project. Much of the music is deeply ironic in that sense, but again, alienation is central to this project.
To what extent did you have complete free reign over the composition? Were you guided or constrained at all by the director?
I had free reign insofar as the style of the pieces and their formal elements, but the nature of the production, both collaborative and ever evolving, meant that many of the pieces were continually morphing throughout the process to stay relevant to the physical elements.
How long did the whole composition process take? How many drafts did you go through?
Composition was a rather long process. I began in early October and we finished the last tune just a couple of weeks before performance. Rather than crafting it all and then fitting into an unmatching mould, I wanted to work with the actors and director throughout to keep the two realms symbiotic. It was important for me for the music to amplify in some sense the physical and verbal goings on, lengthening the process, but making it all the more potent.
Is this the first time you’ve written for a theatrical production? How does it differ to writing music for other purposes and occasions?
It is the first time I’ve written for a theatrical production. The music is very different in that there needs to be a strong understanding between the live band and the cast that there doesn’t need to be in a purely musical performance. When writing for my saxophone quartet, I could be rhythmically more abstract and a little more narcissistic in regards to melody. The sound here is in a marriage of equality with the physical, but can say all the more for its bodily counterpart.
Is it something you want to pursue in your future career, or is it more of just a hobby?
It’s certainly something I intend to keep working upon. I like to continuously undertake challenging projects, and this was one in a hopefully unending line. I’d love to work on writing a musical next; a show with plenty more cast singing and brass where one can surrender to the ludicrousness of it all. I’ve been recently charmed by Tom Waits’ The Black Rider; perhaps I’ll find something in that.
Do you have any advice for anyone interested in getting into composition for theatre, TV, or just in general?
In much the same way that writers are told to write about what they know, I’d suggest composing in the vein of what you listen to. The counterpoint in noughties indie and Soviet inspired revolution is only superficial, and where I fused the two, I was allowed not only to love it more, but say something stranger for it. I’d also suggest that you don’t let a supposed lack of musical theoretical knowledge hold you back; all music sounds basically good, and if it doesn’t, it sounds avant-garde. You cannot lose.