Animal Farm | New Theatre

Image by Bob Seary

The last few years have felt particularly prophetic as the global timeline twists in on itself with the rise of fascism in the west, the collapse of democracy in Hong Kong, the civil rights movement of Black Lives Matter, and the “unprecedented” times of COVID-19 which saw responses from political leaders uncannily similar to the AIDS crisis and the 1918 flu pandemic. So it’s not surprising to see artists turn to the well-worn narratives of George Orwell as an imperfect mirror for the cycle of oppression and revolution we’re living through.

Saro Lusty-Cavallari’s new adaptation of Animal Farm gives body to the characters of Orwell’s allegorical satire by fleshing out conversations and relationships, somewhat doing away with the distance between the original text’s political theory and the narrative itself. The script is structured in episodes complete with title cards and accompanying illustrations that give the production a sense of inevitable progression, ticking off the events as they unfold.

It’s a faithful adaptation which does well to incorporate contemporary familiarity into the classic characters. For example, Lusty-Cavallari included references to Australian politicians’ mannerisms and speeches as points of recognition; in particular, the propagandist Squealer’s (Zoe Crawford) Australian accent seemed to get broader and broader as the pigs accumulate power. In this way the adaptation and direction shift the focus of Animal Farm slightly from theory to practise or from the politics to the politician. What stands out about this production are the instances of propaganda, double-speak, manipulation, and the degradation of inter-animal relationships which move forward Napoleon’s (Angus Evans) regime.

Other interjections or attempts at humour including a burlesque-style musical number in praise of Napoleon, sung by Bella Ridgway, were more uncomfortable than comedic and felt like gags at odds with the otherwise earnest tone.

An interesting element Lusty-Cavallari brings to the fore is a recurring threat that Napoleon and his cronies use: the possibility of Mr Jones returning. It’s the final word used to quiet dissent and argue that current circumstances must be better than they were under the previous dictator. There are parallels to be drawn between the construction of an enemy as a prop for maintaining the status quo and larger social systems like capitalism but the script doesn’t quite make that step successfully. The additional final scene when Mr Jones does return does a lot of the work but there’s ultimately something lacking, something hollow about the threat, that keeps this metaphor from reaching its full potential. Of all the elements Lusty-Cavallari chooses to emphasise, this one most interestingly amplifies the resonance of Orwell’s text but there’s more there to investigate.

The production design was clean and consistent with a substantial farmyard and barn face designed by Carmody Nicol and costuming by Claudia Mirabello which clad all actors, except one, in natural coloured overalls or matching generic top and pants. Each character bears a badge denoting their species with a symbol in classic utilitarian society fashion. Something about the combination of neutral, natural fibre colours and the barn face with Rhys Mendham’s largely warm lighting design gave the production a Biblical atmosphere or something akin to the utopian ideals of simple living. That is, of course, until the villainous presence of Mr Jones (Brendan Miles) coats everything in bloody red or cold blue.

The performances are the exceptional aspect of this production. Miles’s opening speech as Old Major blended well with the conviction of Evans and Lachlan Stevenson as rivals Napoleon and Snowball. The two had a compelling dynamic so it was a shame to know Snowball’s scenes were numbered. Crawford’s slippery Squealer made the skin crawl and Sue Broberg’s sinister presence as Moses, a raven preaching the benefits of suffering, was a complex and discomforting additional voice. The central non-pig characters came through as the loyal but gullible Boxer (Laura Djanegara), the timid but compassionate Clover (Imogen French), the cynical Benjamin (Eleanor Ryan), and the careful Muriel (Nathalie Fenwick). These four did well to carry the more subtle aspects of the narrative, especially French who undergoes great personal growth as a cowed revolutionary. This adaptation also included the voice of Mr Jones and his band of farmer friends (Rob Ferguson and Ben Dewstow) which added another stakeholder in the outcome of Manor Farm but also amped up an undercurrent of violent belligerence in their drunk pub scenes.

Lusty-Cavallari’s adaptation is a strong one with a clear narrative focus. It taps into the renewed interest in Orwell instigated by the 2016 US Presidential Election and the strong desire for affirmation in recurring political patterns. If you’re not Orwelled-out then this show will save you the re-read and reignite your revolutionary spirit.

Animal Farm is running at New Theatre from October 17th – November 7th

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