The birds are twittering and tweeting (all puns intended) on Manor Farm. Industrial scaffolding leads up to a platform that cuts the minimalist set in two. The same metal barriers that are used to corral the crowds waiting for Covid-19 vaccinations criss-cross the floor of the stage. ‘Breaking News’ flashes across the cinema-sized screen that looms over what will soon be renamed ‘Animal Farm’.
Videographer Michael Carmody does a splendid job of splicing together YouTube footage circulating on Facebook – animals gambolling, rearing, yawning, bleating, baying, being slaughtered – to introduce Animalism. In the spotlight, the granddaddy of the revolution, Old Major (Andrea Gibbs sporting khaki overalls and a pig snout), begins his incendiary speech with ‘Comrades, I had a dream’. The nod to Martin Luther King Jr’s famous line is enough to rouse a laugh of recognition from the audience. Old Major denounces the human enemy and goes on to exhort his animal cohorts to throw off the shackles of slavery. The lyrics of the revolutionary anthem ‘Beasts of Our Land’ (originally ‘Beasts of England’) appear on the screen behind his back. If, at first, Gibbs’s voice seemed muffled by her snout, our ears soon adjusted to the amplified sound, or perhaps the technical team rectified the distortion.
Many will be familiar with George Orwell’s classic 1945 political satire from their high school English curriculum. When I reread the book in preparation for the performance, I wondered how playwright Van Badham could possibly adapt Orwell’s postwar critique of Stalin’s Soviet Union to contemporary times. So I was surprised by how closely the play follows Orwell’s novella. While I don’t have a script to check, it seems as though slabs of text have been directly transcribed, a testament to the acuity of Badham’s adaptation. However, Badham’s use of digital technologies – breaking news segments, tweets, videoed selfies, and the filming of major incidents, such as the farmers’ incursion into Animal Farm and the destruction of the wind farm – blurs the boundaries between theatre and cinema, and catapults her homage to Orwell into a present to which we can all relate.
Most impressive are the three actors who take on a mammoth cast of barnyard characters, farmers, and media personalities, transforming themselves with the aid of wigs, masks, and perfect mimicry. Designer Fiona Bruce must be commended for the simple but effective costumes that allow the actors their lightning changes, and director Emily McLean for keeping this complex production under control.
Ebullient best describes the performances of Gibbs as, among others, the pigs Old Major (Karl Marx) and Snowball (Leon Trotsky), and Clover the horse; Megan Wilding as the pig Squealer (Vyacheslav Molotov), Moses the tame raven, Benjamin the donkey, and others; Alison van Reeken as a drunken Farmer Jones, Mollie the horse, the despotic pig Napoleon (Joseph Stalin), and more. Wilding’s porcine turn as Squealer the propagandist, in particular, is a tour de force of rapid-fire Valleyspeak and teen-girl mincing. The utopia-spouting Moses and the dour Benjamin play lesser roles in Badham’s version, but still manage to provide Wilding with plenty of opportunity to ham it up, so to speak, with ‘you know’ and a ‘bad vibe’ peppering her monologues. Van Reeken’s Mollie, in a dramatic departure from Orwell’s somewhat sexist take, is transformed from a Paris Hilton-ish bimbo into a horse with uncanny insight into what is really going on. With despised human ribbons in her long blonde mane and a taste for forbidden sugar cubes, she neighs, snorts, and cavorts about the stage in a convincing approximation of equine behaviour. Gibbs as the motherly Clover, a hard-working carthorse whose costume makes her look like a much put-upon charlady, is suitably ponderous by comparison.
The exuberance of the mise-en-scène fades towards the end of the play. Poignant moments, such as the departure of farm stalwart, Boxer the carthorse (who never appears), for the knackery, and the transformation of the pigs into beer-swilling near-humans, are less fully realised. Napoleon’s guard of snarling hounds is less threatening than it might have been.
According to the program notes, Animal Farm was slated for performance just before the 2020 US elections. In lines that are clearly meant to imitate Donald Trump’s bumptious egotism, Badham has Napoleon declare that he is responsible for all good things, including the calamitous building and rebuilding of the wind farm. Seated in front of a backdrop that looks like an image of the White House, he says something like, ‘It was my idea, a great idea, it was mine.’ Covid-19 delayed the production, but, as Badham points out in an interview, ‘the relevance of this play is even greater in 2021’, when the pigs and cows (I would add sheep) who stormed the Capitol Building in January 2021 brought the United States closer to fascism than anyone could have imagined.
Animal Farm, book and play, is essentially about the difference between propaganda and reality, and the risk of acquiescing, without proper investigation, to the lies we are told. The moral of the story – tell big enough lies and the animals will believe – holds as true in our era of fake news and political double-speak as it did in postwar Europe. I might have anticipated a more overt engagement with issues such as the #MeToo movement or Black Lives Matter, for example, but that does not detract from the fact that Badham’s abridged version of a literary classic is impressive and makes for a thoroughly enjoyable evening of theatre.
Animal Farm (Black Swan State Theatre) continues at the Heath Ledger Theatre until 24 October 2021. Performance attended: 6 October.