How can you tell if a sheep likes theatre? Or a pig is into dance? Fevered Sleep are staging a show for farmyard creatures – while humans decide if they’re bleating for more
Almost 10 years ago, David Harradine made a show in a basement for the Brighton festival. It was called An Infinite Line and featured a horse that stood entirely unconcerned throughout the performance, barely blinking at what went on around him. He was an impressively large presence, a symbolic representation of the natural world, and clearly didn’t give a fig for the theatrical avant-garde.
Harradine’s work with Sam Butler for Fevered Sleep includes Brilliant, which lived up to its name, and the thought-provoking Men and Girls Dance. He is hoping for a rather more startling response from animals this week as Fevered Sleep conduct an experiment in which human artists perform for sheep, pigs and goats at a location in Peckham. The animals won’t need a ticket, but there will be human spectators who do. The cast will definitely be performing for the animals, and the audience are there to watch that encounter.
The show is part of the Wellcome Collection’s fascinating Making Nature exhibition, which aims to explore our relationship with the natural world and how we perceive animals. “We are starting from the point of view that perception is knowledge,” says its curator, Honor Beddard, “but when you have an encounter with an animal, how do you know that you are not projecting something on to it?” The aim of both the show and the exhibition is to explore whether “we can see animals as they really are and not how we tell ourselves that they are”.
Unlike, say, Laurie Anderson’s concert for dogs, Sheep Pig Goat offers the possibility of a new way of seeing as the human audience watches the animal audience and then considers what they think they see. Harradine thinks it’s necessary because “we humans do a really bad job at paying attention. What we are trying to do is provide a space in which humans can properly, respectfully and carefully observe animals watching a performance and reflect and report back on what they’ve seen, whether it’s the body language of a pig or a goat.” Animal experts will be on hand to offer their views.
For Harradine it’s definitely “the most bonkers project I’ve been involved in. But it’s fascinating too. The performances are being used to start a conversation.” As Harradine says, we prefer not to see animals as being just like us: complex, sentient beings, with emotional responses. To that end, the animals chosen to experience Fevered Sleep’s performance are all what Harradine, himself a vegan, describes as creatures that are mostly perceived as “meals in waiting”. Will we think differently about a pork chop if we have seen pigs responding to dance? “The purpose is not to suggest that people shouldn’t eat meat but to examine our relationship with animals – and the ethical and political responsibilities of humans towards them.”