Jake Oldershaw has been talking to killers. The actor, who has worked extensively with the fantastic Stan’s Cafe and recently created the charming Story of the Four Minute Mile for Oxford Playhouse Plays Out, interviewed a number of vets, butchers, equestrians, pet owners and doctors to see if those who are involved in the putting down of animals have a unique way of looking at death.
A Bitesize commission, the production was part of the British Council 2013 Showcase, successfully crowdfunded for its Edinburgh Fringe run, where it earned a Fringe First. the finished piece, about a knackerman teaching a new apprentice the rules of the horse-killing business, argues convincingly that those who have to deal with death on such a frequent basis often come to reflect on their own death – and, in turn, on their lives – with a sense of perspective that the rest of us – with our prepackaged, processed meats, and the distance we put between ourselves and the animals that feed us – do not always have.
The performers, Oldershaw and Jack Trow, move between the scenes in the knackers’ yard, relating the stories of the interviewees, and sometimes we hear recordings which root the work again and again in lived experience. Their lives are brief candles in little houses that litter the stage, and as each light is turned off, we come one story closer to the piece’s death – the final blackout.
We learn about the complexity of killing animals – how a bullet can be far kinder than a needle – but it is through the scenes themselves that the cumulative effect of all this research is really brought home. A beautiful life-size horse puppet clad with rugs and fleeces occupies centre-stage, hoisted to standing position by a rope held and tied by the performers. (Warning: the horse doesn’t make it). Actually, the horse doesn’t make it several times over, and the sensitive animation of the horse by the performers – cooing in its ear as it bucks and tosses before finding peace – conflicts jarringly with the way in which the shot is fired, the rope released, the horse’s limbs splaying as it hits the floor, the inventive and theatrical brutality visited upon its corpse.
We do not forget the puppeteers, as they never attempt to be invisible; they are complicit, in both the animal-puppet’s warmth, its light, and in its snuffing out. War Horse this isn’t. The piece has a visceral intelligence which holds us rapt. And when the piece twists to make us consider again the death of humans, our own deaths, we are then engaged in a discussion of aging, euthanasia and suicide with a newly imprinted set of experiences and assumptions, without, for the most part, retreading familiar avenues when it comes to discussing such Big Ideas.
By the end, we realise that this is a piece about endings, and the biggest provocation is not the bleeding out of unwanted horses, but the simple demand of dignity from a knackered knackerman.