Lucy Kirkwood has been trying to find a way of telling Lapin and Lapinova, Virginia Woolf’s beautiful short story from 1938, for years. Despite winning every award under the sun as a playwright, she couldn’t get a hook on it until Lucy Morrison, then an Artistic Associate at the Almeida Theatre and curator of the Almeida Festival, put her in touch with the choreographer Ben Duke. Together they realised that movement was the key.
In Woolf’s story, Rosalind marries Ernest and, during their honeymoon, notices he has a rather rabbit-like quality: epitomised by his ability to twitch his nose. She is keen to emphasise that he is a regal kind of rabbit, a warrior, certainly not a bunny, so names him King Lappin and declares him monarch of the rabbit realm. She is the white hare, Lapinova, and while “he ruled over the busy world of rabbits; her world was a desolate, mysterious place, which she ranged mostly by moonlight. All the same, their territories touched; they were King and Queen.” In the end, their fantasy world crumbles and, with it, their marriage.
Kirkwood had never worked in dance before but Duke had years of experience trying to bring together text and movement, with numerous works with his dance theatre company Lost Dog and working as a dancer in I Am Falling, the piece by Carrie Cracknell at the Gate Theatre which depicts a similarly intense romantic relationship as Woolf’s Edwardian Rosalind and Ernest.
Duke read the story, responded to it, and decided to join with Kirkwood in creating a version of it for the stage. “We started by asking yourselves how do we tell this story,” Kirkwood explains. “It was about finding the moments where text could be used to heighten or support the dance. At no stage did I sit down and write a script separately.”
As the title suggests, this is an updating of the story. While the first line of the original is: “They were married”, this version is about a man and a woman meeting and having sex. By removing the historical context of the original, Kirkwood feels they avoid getting bogged down in naturalistic detail.
“By de-Edwardianising it, we were also able to move away from the more fixed roles so he can become less of a brute and she less of a hysteric. There’s less reason for the female character to be deferential.”
I suggest that it may involve a lessening of the stakes when the couple aren’t bound together by the obligation of marriage, if they can walk away at any time. Kirkwood agrees that “in the classical sense, the stakes aren’t as high” because they are no longer the dissolution of the marriage. Instead it’s about the “end of love” and that ultimately is true to the original. The end of a relationship, she points out, “isn’t always the moment when you’re slamming doors and shouting at each other”.
What Woolf suggests by her brilliant last line: “And that was the end of that marriage” in no way implies divorce or even separation: simply an irreversible change. When I suggest that there may be some connections between this story and the narrative of I Am Falling, in which Duke also performed, he is surprised.
“I hadn’t read the Woolf when I was in I Am Falling but it’s true that I keep returning to duets as a choreographer. I think dance is a form that’s particularly suited to relationships. Even if I’m working on a larger piece, I tend to be drawn to a protagonist and an other. That happens even when I’m watching something. I know that plenty of choreographers can visualise the whole space but I tend to zoom right in.”
At the core of Woolf’s story is the coexistence of the private fantasy world of Lapin and Lapinova and the mundane, public-facing world of Rosalind and Ernest, a world that is dominated by her husband’s career and his extensive family (“they do breed” is a rather beautifully succinct line). The shifts from one world to another are internal processes captured beautifully and subtly by Woolf, as you may expect. Transposing these to the stage was always going to be a challenge, as Duke explains: “We didn’t want to dress up as rabbits but we did feel we had to put it in the room. So we watched videos of rabbits, did rabbit imitations. Some of it survived. We had to go there but we didn’t want to feel too limited by it. What was really interesting about the story was this nonhuman fantasy realm. To start with I was a bit resistant to the idea of the rabbit actually, like Ernest is. I thought it should be something stronger maybe but the further the piece developed the more I realised that it was exactly the right choice of animal.”
Duke has been exploring ways of telling stories through a combination of movement and text for the last decade through the company he cofounded, Lost Dog, and collaborations with theatre directors. When Carrie Cracknell and Natalie Abrahami were running the Gate Theatre between 2007 and 2012, it felt like this kind of performance briefly had a home. Duke worked with Cracknell on two productions at the Gate (I Am Falling and The Sexual Neuroses of my Parents) and on Dolls for National Theatre of Scotland.
I ask if there’s a danger that the enthusiasm for these kinds of hybrid forms might be subject to the vagaries of fashion. “A long time ago, I thought this was my life’s mission: to combine text and dance in this way. I think because I started as an actor before becoming a dancer, that was always going to happen. Even though sometimes it’s a really bad idea. Some of the best things I’ve ever seen have combined those two things but some of the worst things have too. The piece that really affected me and made me think: “that it, that’s the kind of work I want to make” was Bernadetje by Alain Platel. I saw that when I was twenty. I’ve been moving in that direction for so long now. I can’t change direction now. Theatre is a bigger beast and it takes longer to change. Some of the things that may seem new to theatre audiences don’t necessarily seem all that new in the contemporary dance world. I think it’s true that movements come and go but I also feel that there’s a growing awareness of movement and dance in British theatre now. I think there’s more interest in dance in general.”
After opening at the Brighton Festival on the 15th May, Like Rabbits will play some dates at The Place, which co-comissioned the piece, followed by a few other unconfirmed venues. What Duke would really like though is for the piece to have a longer run at a single venue, just as a play might get.
“I’d like that change of context so that people can just treat it as a piece of storytelling like any other. I think sometimes people come to dance with an expectation that isn’t particularly helpful for this kind of work: it’s that expectation of virtuosity. This work isn’t really about that because it doesn’t always help in telling the story.” With Kirkwood’s profile as it is right now, Like Rabbits might just prove the crossover success that Duke has been waiting for.
Like Rabbits is at Brighton Dome on Thursday 15th May 2014 as part of the Brighton Festival.