Gryphon Theatre, 22 Ghuznee Street, Wellington
30/09/2015 - 10/10/2015
George Orwell’s 1945 satire on the perils of Stalinism has proved magnificently long-lived as a parable about totalitarianism everywhere and has given the world at least one immortal phrase: ‘Some are more equal than others.’
This dramatisation by Ian Wooldridge sticks very closely to the book and retains both its affection for the animals and the incisiveness of its message.
Backyard Theatre’s stage production of George Orwell’s political satire, Animal Farm, features illustrations by British political cartoonist Ralph Steadman in a modern twist on an enduring classic.
Director Tanya Piejus says, “I bought a special edition of Animal Farm in 1995 which was produced to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the book’s original publication. Ralph Steadman was commissioned to illustrate it. I’ve always loved his acerbic and witty way of representing Orwell’s farmyard characters, such as Napoleon the dictatorial pig and Boxer the hard-working carthorse.
“I contacted Ralph to ask whether I could use his illustrations as part of the audio-visual component of my production. I was thrilled when he replied that he was only too happy to donate them to be projected on the wall of the Gryphon Theatre to complement the action on stage.
“Animal Farm has stood the test of time as a commentary on totalitarianism and is just as relevant to today’s global politics as it was in 1945. My aim with this production is to get the audience thinking about how the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Gryphon Theatre, 22 Ghuznee Street
30 September to 10 October 2015
Tickets are available from iTicket (www.iticket.co.nz or 0508 ITICKET).
Two tickets for $30 special on Thursday 1 October.
The cast of Animal Farm
Jessica Brien, Casey Tearle, Sarah Andrews Reynolds, Joshua Walker, Helen Mackenzie and Lottie Butcher
Could be worth a visit
Review by John Smythe 01st Oct 2015
It’s a long time since I read George Orwell’s Animal Farm. A Democratic Socialist, he wrote his allegorical critique of Stalinism from late 1943 to early 1944, when Britain’s wartime alliance with the Soviet Union still flourished and Stalin was highly regarded by the British establishment. It was therefore not until 17 August 1945 that it finally got published, in England. Only when the Cold War had taken hold a couple of years later, did it become popular throughout the Western Bloc.
I purposely didn’t revisit Orwell’s text so that I could see if this Backyard Theatre production of Ian Wooldridge’s dramatisation – directed by him with TAG Theatre company at ‘Glasgow Citz’ in 1982 – would deliver its message afresh. And it does. That is to say, the progression form idealism to corruption is clear. [Notes in square brackets are mine, in the light of some post-show research.]
The soon-to-die old boar, Major [Marx/Lenin] (Sarah Andrews Reynolds) espouses a vision of social justice and teaches the animals of Manor Farm their revolutionary anthem, ‘Beasts of England’. Fellow pigs Napoleon [Stalin] (Jessica Brien) and Snowball [Trotsky] (Casey Tearle) lead the revolution, sending Mr Jones the drunken farmer – here depicted as a powerless scarecrow – into exile. The animals are educated, some better than others, and the seven principles of Animalism are set down: 2 legs, enemy; 4 legs or wings, friend; No clothes, beds, alcohol, killing of any other animal; All animals are equal.
It takes a while for various individuals to adjust and very soon, but under the guise of collective agreement, cracks begin to appear in the principles. Jones’ attempt to get back his cows fails thanks to Snowball’s tactical leadership. Here blood-red tableaux capture ‘The Battle of the Cowshed’, effectively redolent of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’.
When Snowball, now a popular hero, advocates for technology – a windmill to generate power – to ease the burden on workers, Napoleon wrests power back by disputing its value and setting his dogs on Snowball. A committee of pigs replaces the collective, Squealer [Molotov] (Lottie Butcher) uses convoluted logic to explain why the windmill project was Napoleon’s idea from the start and work resumes on it.
The committee pigs make themselves comfortable in the farmhouse, tweaks begin to be made to the principles, the ever-loyal workhorse Boxer [the Russian working class] (Josh Walker) continues to believe in the infallibility of Napoleon – then a storm ruins the almost completed windmill. [Orwell has the windmill blown up by neighbouring farmers, so I take it the ‘natural causes’ version is a Wooldridge idea.]
After the unnecessary interval (it would runs 75 minutes without it) the action picks up at the same post-storm moment. Squealer blames and demonises Snowball while glorifying Napoleon. ‘Secret documents’ supposedly left behind by Jones are reputed to prove Snowball was in league with Jones from the start. And so the purge begins: and orgy of denunciations, confessions and executions of ‘traitors’. “Without cause” is added to the “No killing other animals” principle.
‘Beasts of England’ is abolished because the revolution is complete. Boxer’s blind loyalty is shockingly betrayed – as are all seven principles of Animalism which are revised and then reduced to Animal Farm’s most enduring quote: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”.
Inexorably and probably inevitably everything the revolution was supposed to overcome is reinstated. The alcoholism of both Jones and Napoleon may be seen as a metaphor for addiction to power and losing touch with the real world. Even so, the gentle horse Clover [Helen Mackenzie] romanticises the briefly-experienced thrill of “being in charge”, leaving the literate donkey Benjamin (Casey Tearle), who has an excellent memory, to posit the misanthropic counterpoint. The nail in animalism’s coffin arrives in the shape of neighbouring farmer Pilkington (Matt Todd), come to discuss the employment problem – i.e. workers wanting fair wages and conditions for their work – with Napoleon over a whiskey or three.
So yes, director Tanja Piejus and her minimal ensemble cast of six – plus Pilkington – deliver the essence of the allegory competently with good design support in set, sound and AV (Piejus), props, set and wardrobe (Rodney Bane; also production manager) and lighting (Aaron Blackledge; also the technical operator).
I do feel compelled to assure Sarah Andrews Reynolds – who plays Major, Moses the proselytising crow, Mollie the vain young mare who likes being patted by humans, and Minimus the poetic pig, and others – that her technique as a character actress is clear but when she uses the production as a platform to demonstrate it instead of using her skills to present the play, the performance tail wags the playwright’s – and Orwell’s – dog.
It is always a downer when one realises an actor’s major objective in performance is to remember his lines, as with Matt Todd’s Pilkington on opening night. This diminished the effect of the ending considerably. Otherwise the ensemble mostly works well together to pull focus to the play’s purpose.
Much more of the individual and group psychology could be explored, however, to engage us in a vicarious experience of the socio-political syndromes we are all susceptible to. Despite being asked to recite the mantra “Four legs good; two legs bad”, we remain objective observers, never seduced by idealism, charisma or peer-group pressure.
Acquiring a special dispensation to project British political cartoonist Ralph Steadman’s illustrations (from the Secker and Warburg 50th anniversary edition of Animal Farm) behind the action undoubtedly seemed like a good idea at the time. If only those images were used it might work but so many others are flashed up to spoon-feed us with historical parallels, they distract us from the play proper. I believe universal truths are more effectively liberated when a metaphor is ‘hermetically sealed’.
I am a bit surprised when a slide sequence depicting dictators through the ages – Mussolini, Gaddafi, Hussein, Mugabe, Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un, et al – adds Vladimir Putin to the mix. But when British PM David Cameron is dropped in just before Hitler, I’m shocked. Was this an afterthought prompted by Michael Ashcroft’s uncorroborated allegations concerning Cameron and a pig’s head? If so, the parallel with the demonising of Snowball-cum-Trotsky is ironic to say the least.
These misgivings notwithstanding, if you have never read or seen Animal Farm, or you feel a refresher is in order as global politics play out 70 years on, this Backyard Theatre production could be worth a visit.
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