Is it justifiable to use animals on stage?

Jez Butterworth’s play, The Ferryman, has had a successful run at the Royal Court, a West End run and it has recently announced its transfer to Broadway. With all of this, people have been queuing round the block to get a ticket.

Is it justifiable to use animals on stage?

The play is about a rural Irish family. Set in the early 1980s, the head of the household is a former IRA activist. His brother has been missing for ten years and is one of the ‘Disappeared’ that resulted as part of the Troubles. The play examines the concepts of radicalisation, terrorism and imperialism through the family, many generations of which live under the same roof.

The play is tense with heightened emotions throughout but, it is a play about family. There are fun, gentle moments, scenes of elation and celebration. These moments of levity deepen the impact of the raw and politically charged moments.

Set on a farm, the play incorporates several generations of the same family, including a baby, and it also features their animals. Seen on stage are a live goose and a rabbit that is brought out of a character’s coat pocket. Producers, animal handlers and actors will assure audiences that the animals are well cared for and suffer no harm. Humans choose to be on stage, out of their natural environment and under the bright lights. The animals do not and while they may seem at ease, we don’t know the stress and confusion they may suffer. For The Ferryman, the appearance of the animals elicited a response from the audience but they were not vital to the plot and the scenes they appeared in would have worked without the physical creature there.

Indeed, with the goose, it decided to nibble on an actor’s coat before leaving droppings on the floor so all eyes were on it and not the scene, so an argument cannot be made for enhancement of dramatic effect.

The Ferryman isn’t the only recent play to feature animals. The Royal Court Theatre had a play that featured a herd of goats and when Harry Potter and the Cursed Child first opened, it featured some live owls. These were soon cut from the play when they did not conform.

With legislation changing and moving towards prohibiting the use of animals in circuses, the question remains how long will live animals remain on stage in the name of spectacle?


Please note: pictured is Ivan Kaye who played Tom Kettle at the beginning of the current run of The Ferryman at the Gielgud Theatre.

Harrison Fuller

Theatre manager, writer, maker.

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