Global events over the last three years have dragged Animal Farm, the anti-Stalinist novel by George Orwell, back into the spotlight. This adaptation for the stage by Geordie Brookman animates the slow but steady journey from revolution to dictatorship in an English farmyard with a single actor representing all characters.
After a sold out season in Adelaide, Animal Farm comes to Riverside Theatres with the political satire and social commentary many remember from reading the book in school. Written with Orwell’s excellent eye for human behaviour and historical patterns, the story follows a farmyard of animals who revolt against their oppressive human leader but eventually find themselves in even worse conditions under pig dictator Napoleon. It’s the quiet and unrelenting loss of their rights and the undermining of their utopian ideals through the greed and selfishness of their leaders that is so unsettling about the failure of Animal Farm as we see it reflected in our own leaders around the world. It’s a powerful novel as an allegorising tool of the common trends in many dictators’ rise to power and, with Orwell’s other hit novel 1984, it captures a particular political mode from the 20th century.
In this production, Dale March plays all parts of Manor, and eventually, Animal Farm including Mr Jones, Old Major, Napoleon and his sidekicks Snowball and Squealer, Clover and Boxer, Benjamin, and the goats, sheep, chickens, dogs, and cows; over 20 characters in total under the all-seeing eye of Orwell’s narrator. Despite the challenge of so many personalities, March also has to contend with the merging of human and animal nature into unique vocal and physical characterisations that enhance, rather than distract, from the narrative. His rendition of the pigs, in particular, is a detailed and dedicated articulation of arrogance and cruelty that proves difficult to stomach at times. March’s overall role to artfully and faithfully render this well-known story and its characters is impressively controlled.
Brookman’s direction is precise and steadily concentrated on the humour of Orwell’s satire. This is a familiar story for the audience in novel form but also as a recurring historical arc that the sarcasm of this narrator’s voice doesn’t shy away from. The dissonance between the animals’ bewilderment and hope and the narrator and audience’s knowledge of the inevitable exacerbates the dramatic irony on one hand and the sadness of characters like Boxer on the other. In an ideal world, the belief in the inherent goodness of people would not be met with cruelty and violence but the mirroring of reality as it tears into Boxer’s dignity throughout the production resonates even in the cynical.
For a solo performance, the design becomes March’s co-stars. Bianka Kennedy’s coffin-esque folded stage compacts and focuses the action between Alexander Ramsay’s bars and spots of light. The interaction between the lighting and sound design by Andrew Howard, especially in very realistic recreations of gun shots and cracking thunder storms, often seemed more intent on startling the audience rather than creating an atmosphere when so much of the rest of the production was in silence, but it can’t be said they didn’t do that well. However, the opening scene-setting with March illuminated as a haunted, floating head was excellent lighting design in action.
Brookman’s adaptation doesn’t have a revelation to share or a drastically new take on Animal Farm. But, with the times we’re living in, when every election result or deal signed or international meeting in the news rings with Napoleon’s final maxim, perhaps the pain of sitting through the prediction of another failed government is a worthy reminder: we are creatures of comfortable habits.
Animal Farm is running at Riverside Theatres from May 1st – 3rd