Cambridge Arts Theatre
Reviewed – 8th February 2022
“Sheer puppetry genius”
George Orwell’s classic fable is brought to the stage, adapted and directed by Robert Icke. The only human character is that of The Farmer – ruddy face, flat cap and wellingtons – who first appears carrying a number of pig carcasses across the stage. The tall outer walls of the farm (Set and Costume design by the award winning Bunny Christie) resemble those of a prison camp with the animals, whose futures are clearly apparent in the farmer’s bloodied apron, securely residing on the other side.
All other characters are the animals which are brought to life by Puppetry Designer and Director Toby Olié’s life-size puppets, handled by a versatile ensemble of fourteen puppeteer-actors.
We hear from Old Major – a pig with a dream – in the first of many regular animal meetings convened in the barn. He explains his vision for a revolutionary future where animals will manage their own affairs free of the exploitation of the Farmer and where all animals will be equal. The animals bleat, grunt, and moo their approval.
With the death of Major soon after, the revolution is triggered, and an exhilarating scene follows as the animals drive out the Farmer to a symphonic soundtrack (Sound Designer and Music Tom Gibbons), using slow-motion cinematic elements to enhance the drama. The movement of the puppets is enthralling to watch as the birds peck, the dog bites, the goat butts, and the pigs charge their way to victory.
The next scene shows the newly liberated animals hard at work bringing in the harvest. The stage is stripped bare to the back wall with effective use of cross lighting (Lighting Designer Jon Clark). With electronic surtitles informing us of the movement of time, the pigs begin to dominate, and Napoleon rises as the pig in charge. His gruff voice and no-nonsense approach show us he is a pig not to be argued with and when he lurches forward in anger, he appears to break free from his own handlers. Sheer puppetry genius.
No animal works harder than Boxer the cart horse. Two metres in height, his puppet takes three handlers to manipulate, and we believe firmly in his weight and his strength. One of the finest scenes is his struggle to continue as weariness overwhelms him and he falls slowly to the ground. The collapse of Boxer is perfectly executed and surprisingly moving.
Bit by bit, the perfection of the revolution is corrupted until by the end no animal can remember Old Major’s dream – “All animals are equal” – but only Napoleon’s revised version: “…but some animals are more equal than others”.
In the brief ninety minutes’ duration of this production, Orwell’s warning about the corruption of power is there to be heard but it is the ingenuity of the puppetry that will be remembered. From the gossiping chickens to Clover’s frolicking calf – always asking questions – to the grotesqueness of the pigs learning to stand on two legs, this production is a wonderful introduction to the world of theatre.
Reviewed by Phillip Money
Photography by Manuel Harlan
Cambridge Arts Theatre until 12th February then UK Tour continues. See animalfarmonstage.co.uk for dates.
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