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> > > Unlimited 2014: Garry Robson on Edmund the Learned Pig

As part of the second Unlimited programme, more audiences will have the opportunity to enjoy the glorious musical adventure featuring an unusual pig. Paul F Cockburn speaks with co-creator Garry Robson.

photo of the cast from the show centred around the puppet, edmund the learned pig

Edmund the Learned Pig brings together a disparate group of contributors. How did the show come together?

“I’ve always been a fan of old style music hall, theatre, circus, freak shows. I'm also a big fan of the Tiger Lillies, a very dark cabaret band. I went to see them a few years ago, and they played this song called ‘The Learned Pig’—from an unpublished poem by Edward Gorey— which kind of blew me away.

“I’d been wanting to make a show for young people for quite a while, particularly the eight-plus age-group, and this seemed like a really good vehicle. I’d seen Krazy Kat Theatre Company’s work when I was Artistic Director at DaDaFest, and loved their fusion of puppetry, quite high camp theatre, and British Sign Language. So I spoke with Kinny Gardner, their Artistic Director, to see if they’d be interested, and he was.

“We then approached the Tiger Lillies to see if they’d come in with us. Martyn Jacques, who’s the band’s composer and writer, was blown away by the idea of one of his songs—indeed, any of the Tiger Lillies’ work—being used for kids, let alone deaf kids! Initially we hoped the Tiger Lillies would be part of the show; that didn’t prove possible, but Martyn agreed to write the songs.

“We then went to the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, whom I’d worked with several times in the past, and pitched the idea to them. Basically, they loved it and came in as co-producers. By that stage I’d also spoken to Mike Kenny, an amazing writer, particularly known for his writing for young people. He too was fascinated by the idea, and so he agreed to write it.”

What attracted you to that kind of audience?

“Eight-to-eleven year olds are known as a fairly difficult audience. They’re on the cusp; not quite teenagers, not quite wee kids any more. The maturity levels also vary incredibly: some of them are still very much children, others are nudging puberty. So it’s a show geared towards this age-group, but we wanted their families to enjoy it as well. The Tiger Lillies have a big cult audience too, of course, so we’re attracting them as well.”

Did you always intend to tour the show?

“We knew we wanted to make a relatively elaborate show. It was going to fuse British Sign Language and spoken word; it was going to have songs, magic, tricks, and aerial gymnastics. So initially we made it just for a two and a half week run at the Royal Exchange; but we got in promoters and producers to look at it, with a view to touring it the following year. We were in the process of setting up that tour when Unlimited happened.”

Fittings Edmund the Learned Pig is in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre on Saturday 6 September (2pm & 6pm + post show Q&A. Please click on this link to book tickets

How did you create the titular Edmund, the Learned Pig?

“We knew we wanted to use a puppet for this pig who can read and write and speak. We were lucky enough to get a wonderful puppet and then a remarkable puppeteer, Tony Cairns. I hated the pig by the end; the pig got all of the attention! Everybody wanted to meet the pig.

We’ve just finished a promo film for Unlimited, and the director said: ‘We’ve got to have the pig. I want the pig, Garry!’”

They say never work with animals, especially imaginary ones…

“One of the great skills of acting is metamorphosis. That piece of foam rubber, in the hands of Tony Cairns… well Tony is no longer Tony, and the rubber is no longer rubber. It’s true theatrical metamorphosis.

At one point in the show we do a mind-reading act and, of course, we blindfold the pig, not Anthony! It’s ludicrous, but everybody goes with it!

“We did workshops at a number of schools; as part of that, we would have a little session with the pig. Antony would come out with Edmund, and the kids were talking to the pig, not to us! One day I asked the teachers of an older group if there was anything else they wanted us to talk about, and they told me they were moving on to Brecht and ‘Alienation technique’. So, just for a laugh, thinking I’d put Tony on the spot, I said, ‘I don’t know much about Brecht, I’ll ask Edmund.’ Then ‘Edmund’ starts talking about Brecht and all the kids are rapt listening to a pig talking about Brecht! A wonderful moment!”

What does the Unlimited 2014 commission mean for the show?

“Unlimited have been fantastically supportive, not just financially, but in all sorts of other ways. We’re honoured. It allows us to bring back what I think is a wonderful show — thankfully the critics and the public felt so as well — to a wider audience.”

Fittings Edmund the Learned Pig is in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre on Saturday 6 September (2pm & 6pm + post show Q&A. Please click on this link to book tickets