A Hare-aclitean Saga: Acting Like Rabbits In Watership Down
Richard Adams' Watership Down is an epic saga of a community driven from their land and forced to explore unknown territories in search of a new home. After a journey fraught with danger and uncertainty as they encounter a diversity of strangers, some friendly and some hostile, our pilgrims discover their opportunity to make a fresh start, but must then face the challenge of finding mates to establish a settlement. Oh, and by the way—we are in England's Yorkshire and our intrepid heroes are rabbits.
You heard me—rabbits. Bugs, Thumper, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail rabbits. And while Lifeline Theatre has plenty of experience in transforming human actors into animals endowed with the psychological complexity of Shakespearean princes—in 2003's Far From The Madding Crowd and more recently, in the Jeff-winning 2007 adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau—how will they deal with the anthropomorphic restrictions of lapine physiques?
"I thought about the film called The Warriors," costume designer Aly Renee Amidei confides, "Each gang has their own 'uniform', but with personalized variations within the group, and this inspired me to give each warren its own distinctive 'look', reflecting its culture and lifestyle. The fugitive Sandleford rabbits have a street-grunge vibe, for example, while the police-state Efrafa rabbits are definitely militaristic. Other warrens might sport preppy fashions, or a beatnik aesthetic modeled on Andy Warhol's Factory days."
But more than wardrobe is needed to convey the appropriate level of orientation to this fantasy world. Movement Designer Paul Holmquist turned to footage from the internet in studying how rabbits interact with each other, adapting gestures based on their movements to normal non-verbal communication. "We [actors] don't use our fingers for pointing, instead keeping our hands closed, like paws. We shiver. We tilt our heads or stretch our necks to express certain emotions. We hop, yes—but there's no squatting with our fists underneath our chins."
And how about that final battle with the ruthless Efrafa army, when the rabbits must fight in Full Furry Jacket mode? "Rabbits will run to ground when confronted by a larger predator," explains David Gregory of R & D Violence Designers, "but fights between rabbits are characterized by great leaping charges. They will, literally, crash into one another and roll on the ground while locked in struggle. So we focus on grapples, takedowns and leg-strikes initiated at angles reflecting extreme peripheral vision—did you know that rabbits have almost 360-degree vision owing to their eyes being on the sides of their heads?—often preceded by a 'freeze' just before launching an attack. Rabbits have very strong front and back talons for digging, but except for claw rakes, we don't use hands much. And while rabbits also have very strong teeth, the image of one actor biting another is not the artistic picture we want."
That artistic picture is what will ultimately determine the production's success. Adapter John Hildreth and director Katie McLean Hainsworth are adamant in their insistence that Richard Adams' fable was conceived as a mythical journey of conflict and challenges addressing human beings—"and many other species, too," adds Hainsworth, "Our goal was for actors, not to mimic rabbit behavior, but to interpret it, making the question of how to create the 'rabbit universe' our paramount concern, guiding every discipline toward rendering the story effective and efficient."
Watership Down is scheduled to run at Lifeline Theatre through June 19.
Mary Shen Barnidge
Follow Us On Twitter