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.
“multi-talented young actors tell this compulsive and provocative story”
The Royal Theatre in Northampton re-opens with a superb production from the National Youth Theatre REP Company of George Orwell’s fairy tale/allegory adapted for the stage by Tatty Hennessy.
We are introduced to the main players with a recorded voice-over (Will Stewart). Each animal has been clearly well workshopped and is meticulously caricatured. There is no wearing of animal masks, and little crawling on all fours. Base costumes (Jasmine Swan) are adorned with small signifiers: the pigs wear pink gilets; Minty the sheep, a white tutu and woollen bobble hat; the horses, brown leather belts and straps.
The simplicity of the set (Jasmine Swan), a backdrop of hanging plastic strips, allows the flexibility of multiple entrance and exit points and when the light catches their mud and dirt it gives a looming feeling of the abattoir. Generally effective lighting (Zoe Spurr) includes the dramatic landing of a helicopter, sensational backlit scenes to cast warning shadows and the occasional dramatic use of colour.
Director Ed Stambollouian intersperses full ensemble pieces with scenes focusing on individual characters where each animal gets their turn in the limelight. Each animal could carry more of the story, but all animals are not equal. Napoleon (Jack Matthew) is the main man (pig!) – the self-proclaimed leader of the Revolution. His transformation from pig to man-equal is the more impressive as he fights the animalistic urge to slip back squealing into the mud. Squealer (Matilda Rae) is the political spin-doctor, beautifully conniving and deceitful. The carthorse Boxer (Will Atiomo) with his maxim of “I will work harder” shows fine vocal colour and excellent physical movement. Much of the narration falls upon the mare Clover (Adeola Yemitan) who shines in her poignant personal scene.
The full ensemble scenes are rhythmic and physical (choreography by Vicki Igbokwe) with inventive and ingenious uses of buckets and ladders although handling of the latter sometimes appears clumsy in the close confines of the Royal stage. The hip-hop dance scene counting the seven animal commandments particularly stands out and the singing of the anthem Beasts of England (Composer John Elliott, Musical Director Jordan Clarke) would not sound out of place sung from the barricades of another revolutionary stage show. Whilst the initial Revolution seems too easily won, the Battle of the Cowshed is brilliantly portrayed: animals in formation across all angles of the stage defeat the cartoonish Farmer Giles with kick-ass action (Fight Director Enric Fortuño).
The second half does not sustain the dynamisms of the first as the size of the ensemble reduces, but it does include the most unsettling scene of the evening involving the worrying use of metal pails which evoke shades of the Lubyanka and Guantánamo.
The writer hopes in her programme notes that the show will make us angry. We clearly see how the hard work of the proletariat is exploited by the autocracy, how the honesty of the workers’ revolution is betrayed by its leaders. We see the lies and scheming of politicians as they push through their own vanity projects, air brush history, and steal from the populace… But after seeing these multi-talented young actors tell this compulsive and provocative story on stage I came away primarily with a satisfied feeling that such stories are once again being told. The anger can come later.