Sunday, October 10, 2021

Theatre: Animal Farm

by Van Badham

from the novel by George Orwell

Black Swan State Theatre Company

Directed by Emily McLean

Set and Costume designer Fiona Bruce

Composer and sound designer Rachael Dease

Lighting designer Karen Cook

Video designer Michael Carmody

Performed by Andrea Gibbs, Alison van Reeken and Megan Wilding

Heath Ledger Theatre until October 24, 2021

Alison van Reeken, Andrea Gibbs and Megan Wilding (pic Daniel J Grant)
In 1992 the political scientist Francis Fukayama claimed the final victory of Western liberal democracy over its various competitors and, on that basis, declared The End of History in his hugely influential book with that title.

Just goes to show how wrong you can be.

The fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet empire and its satellites that Fukayama saw as the dawn of some kind of political stasis might also have consigned George Orwell’s Animal Farm – the savage parable of the Stalinism he felt had betrayed democratic socialism and attacked objective truth – to the remainder bin of admirable curiosities like its near-contemporary, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator .

Van Badham’s stage adaptation of Animal Farm is a brave attempt to release Orwell’s parable from the specifics of the mid-twentieth century USSR and put contemporary flesh on its bones.

It’s successful in very large measure because of scorching performances from three tremendous actors, Andrea Gibbs, Alison van Reeken and Megan Wilding, who play its 17 “live” characters and a host of others on film and audio.

They are carefully placed front and centre, facing straight out to the audience, by the director Emily McLean, who shows the respect and felicity for clear, cleanly delivered dialogue and simplicity of action that makes her work so constantly accessible and satisfying.

Which is not to say this Animal Farm is merely neat or tidy. Gibbs, van Reeken and Wilding keep things gloriously salty, and video designer Michael Carmody and composer/sound designer Rachael Dease rub it into the wounds with intent.

The result is seriously funny as well as deadly serious, as brightly energetic as previous attempts, notably the CIA-funded 1954 film version, have been grim plodders.

Animal Farm happens as much on a gigantic screen as on stage, and Carmody’s effects are terrific; he films the cast in their stage characters and many more beside (a total, at a rough count, of 37) interspersed with mocked up media reports, mainstream and on-line media and revolutionary graphics.

It’s a whirligig of imagery and, combined with the three marvellous performances, an exciting experience.

But does it hit its mark, both as an adaptation of Orwell’s original and as an invention of its own?

The answer to the first question is a resounding yes.  The Orwellian nightmare is fiercely imagined, his outrage and despair clearly displayed. The process of totalitarianism, its betrayal of noble heroism and the common good, and the re-writing of history it requires, is brutally exposed.

The story of Napoleon and Squealer, Mollie and Snowball, Benjamin, Mr Jones and the tragic Boxer – so familiar they need not be repeated here – are retold with fidelity to the original.

I think, though, an opportunity – or at least an accuracy – has been missed in this updated Animal Farm, although it’s hard to level blame on this production or Badham.  This piece was conceived in 2019 and was intended to be performed just before the 2020 US Elections. It’s been updated right up to the paroxysm of January 2021 in the US Capitol Building.

It’s obvious enough, given the times, that Trump/Napoleon should be the successor to Stalin/Napoleon, but he really isn’t. Trump has been a spectacular failure as a would-be dictator, destroyer of the truth and politician. He’s no Napoleon.

A far better example of the type that caused Orwell so much grief and anger is on 24/7 news cycle display much closer to home.

Instead of “Make Animal Farm Great” as the ubiquitous slogan for this rambunctious, bitterly funny tour de force of a production, I’d suggest “How Good are Animals” would have been closer to the mark, and to the bone.