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Animal Farm

by on 11 May 2022

More than Others

Animal Farm

by George Orwell, adapted by Robert Icke    

Children’s Theatre Partnership in association with Birmingham Rep at Richmond Theatre until 14th May, then tour continues until 28th May

Review by Celia Bard

Human puppetry productions like Warhorse (Michael Morpurgo), The Lion King (Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi) and Equus (Peter Schaffer), judging from their continuing success in entertaining audiences, indicate a change of mind-set in adult audiences regarding their acceptance of puppetry as a major form of entertainment.  Puppetry need not be one of the things we abandon after childhood.  Puppetry origins go back a long way, as far back to Egyptian times and the discovery of wire-controlled puppets in Egyptian tombs, and to ancient Greece when productions of The Illiad were often staged with marionettes.  Mark Aspen of Aspen Reviews reminded me when in discussion about Animal Farm, that human puppetry forms and the wearing of masks are often be seen in opera productions.  So why the appeal?  Basil Jones, executive producer at Handspring says that “Human puppets do something different.  They are metaphors for our struggle to live … getting out of bed, sitting in a chair, and that these ‘micro struggles’ are released better by puppets acting as human actors themselves.”

From this reviewer’s own experience of working with human puppetry and masks, she has learnt first-hand that puppetry is a highly skilled medium and that a tremendous amount is required from performers, namely working a mechanical object and at the same time projecting the animal’s intentions and personality to an audience.  Sometimes, groups of puppeteers need to work together in order to manipulate just one animal.  This requires having to learn, says Basil Jones, ‘how to coordinate intentions and movements without speaking.’  The puppeteers have to develop a collective mind-set, rather like dancers. 

On reflection, it is perhaps surprising that it’s not until now that we are seeing a major production of Animal Farm in human puppetry form.  It’s a story that has been on the English school curriculum for decades.  Animal Farm, written in 1945 by George Orwell (Eric Blair), is in effect a fairy story, albeit a frightening one, told in the style of Aesop’s fables.  It uses animals on an English farm to tell the history of Soviet communism, a form of government that Orwell heavily criticised, unable to turn a blind eye to the cruelties and hypocrisies of a Soviet Communist Party, which had overturned the semi-feudal system of the tsars only to replace it with the dictatorial reign of Joseph Stalin.  Certain animal are based directly on Communist Party Leaders.  The pigs, Napoleon and Snowball, for example are representations of Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky, respectively.   Although the ‘fable’ is essentially about Communism and the former USSR, it has its counterparts in other dictatorial type regimes, e.g.  Mao Tse-tung, Pol Pot, Augusto Pinochet and conversely, almost as if things have turned full circle, Russia and President Putin. 

Back, however to this production of Animal Farm and its power to entertain its audience, but at the same time staying true to the Orwellian view of political landscapes as he witnessed them in the 20th century.  Basically, the plot is about a group of animals who resent the lives they are living under human control (Russian Tsars).  Old Major (Lenin and Marx), a prize-winning boar, has a dream in which all the animals live together without being dominated by humans.  He organises a meeting in the big barn at Manor farm and tells the animals that they must work towards achieving this utopia.  He teaches them a song called Beasts of England, in which his dream is lyrically described.  The animals greet Major’s vision with great enthusiasm.  When he dies only three nights after the meeting, three younger pigs—Snowball (Trotsky), Napoleon (Stalin), and Squealer (propagandist)—express his main principles into a philosophy called Animalism.  Late one night, the animals battle with the farmer, Mr.  Jones and succeed in running him off the land.  The property is renamed Animal Farm and the animals dedicate themselves to achieving Major’s dream— easier said than done as is revealed in the production.

The story of Animal Farm was adapted by Robert Icke and is astutely directed by him.  The tale is enacted mostly by puppets, designed by Toby Olié, of War Horse fame, with the exception of just a few humans.   Beside Napoleon, Snowball and Squealer, who become more and more human, even standing on two legs, and who come to represent the ‘more equal’ animals on the farm, we have an assortment of other farm animals including fearsome dogs, who represent the secret police, Clover, a good hearted female farm-horse, Molly, a rather vain, flighty mare who misses human attention and then there are the smaller farm animals, pigeons, stubborn hens and honking geese.  The communication between the animals is truly remarkable, for instance the tender interaction between Boxer and Clover is so naturalistic, you quite forget that they are puppets.  Also quite moving is the scene right at the end of the production when Clover is experiencing poor eyesight and finds it hard to distinguish the difference between Napoleon and the Farmer. 

The miniature puppetry too is superb, and adds to the complexity of the story, for example the tiny motorcars being manipulated on sticks, representing the battle between Russia and Nazi Germany.  The sound and lighting effects are truly impressive: the jeep headlights; the flashing lights and war-like sounds accompanied by arousing music during the battle scenes, all succeed in providing a vivid theatrical experience rich in atmosphere and tension, but at the same time create high points as in the injuring of Snowball during one of the battle scenes. 

The electronic boards positioned above and in front of the stage provide useful information as to time sequences and deaths of animals.  This gave a sense of time passing as well as details about the awful slaughter of animals either during the battles or by execution carried out by one of the animals, thus breaking one of the seven rules that ‘no animal shall kill another animal.’

This is a production well worth seeing and it is without doubt thought provoking, providing as it does an Orwellian perspective of communist Russia that at the same time allows us to see modern day parallels in twisted truths and propaganda.  On leaving the theatre, this reviewer was certainly bowled over by the artistry and skill of the actor puppets, the vocal quality of the characters and the simplicity and effectiveness of the set, but it would not be true to say that it was an uplifting experience though she was certainly pleased to be a member of an extremely appreciative audience albeit mostly an adult one.  How young children might react poses another question, and one cannot help but wonder whether it might be rather a frightening experience, it certainly was an unsettling one for your reviewer.

Celia Bard, May 2022

Photography by Manuel Harlan

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