Animal Farm - Review

16 05 2022

Photo: Manuel Harlan


The Children’s Theatre Partnership production of Animal Farm asks political and theatrical questions of the twentieth century parable.

It is easy to forget that Orwell’s criticism of Stalinist Russia in Animal Farm was controversial when it was first written. No publisher wanted to engage with anti-Soviet sentiment during the second world war when Stalin was widely appreciated for being an integral part of the war effort against the Nazis. But Orwell was not one for hero worship and penned his short fable as a direct attack on the way the so-called “heroes of the people” had overthrown one set of unelected oppressors only to take their place. And the subsequent popularity of the story – retold in film, studied in schools and a rare example of a successful contemporary allegory – has allowed it to become a flexible moral parable in the changing world of modern politics.

This consistent relevance makes it a great show to stage. Is Squealer the pig a mouthpiece for the state or the embodiment of fake news?  Is Mollie the mare a symbol of the politically naive and materialistic, or is she a stereotypical Millennial too focused on her appearance to notice the world around her? Director Robert Icke’s adaptation is full of topical leanings yet is never overt or obvious. Instead, the focus is on the theatrical and here the play really excels. There are slow-motion chase sequences, grand thundering battles, a coup verging on pantomime and bloody executions. With his experience of adapting Orwell’s other classic, !984, Icke skilfully embraces both the dramatic potential and the trenchant commentary of the text.

The sparse stage, sliced and diced by corrugated iron walls, is designed by four time Olivier award-winner Bunny Christie, with Toby Olié of War Horse fame creating the puppets, many of which are brought to life by fellow War Horse alumni. From the delicate fluttering of Moses, the raven, to the staggering height and tremendous muscles of Boxer (the horse), the stage is animated through constant yet careful movement and action by the puppeteers.

While the production swaps Orwell’s country-garden wit for genuine laughs but also substitutes the book’s quiet horror for an almost self-satisfied cruelty. Farmer Joe isn’t the useless drunk from the book but a monster who leaves no dog unkicked. The heightening of certain elements makes sense for expediencies’ sake but there are moments where the show does feel lacking in a through line, or even a main character to guide the audience.

Each character is given their own regional accent which works immersive wonders and does the heavy lifting of characterisation in an instant. Snowball, the pig co-leader of the revolution, sounds like Ed Miliband. Meanwhile, his thuggish other half, Napoleon, sounds like Ray Winstone. There’s no question who’s going to overthrow who.

Running at a rapid ninety minutes, the play excels in moments, flying from set-piece to set-piece as it charts the downfall of the farm. But it often fails to adequately grasp the most poignant moments in the book. “All Animals Are Equal But Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others” is a harrowing moment in the book that exemplifies the ludicrous justifications the oppressive ruling classes will invent to cling to power and ignore the inequalities that they create and benefit from. On stage it feels like the predictable punchline of a Christmas cracker joke However, the ending, in which the animals cannot tell pig from man and man from pig is handled with moving comic depth.

One of the highlights of this production is the ending, in which matriarchal cow Clover regales some of the details of the revolution to her daughter and there is a faint hope that one day the current oppressors will be overthrown too. For what is often a dark and shocking show aimed at young adults, it’s a necessary relief to end on what could be interpreted as a positive note. Despite changing the name of the land from the revolutionary Animal Farm back to the original Manor Farm, there is a sense that no one has the final word in history, and that there is always positive change yet to come.

Alistair Maxwell