Review | ‘Animal Farm’ revisits Orwell’s tale in the age of Trump

Animal Farm | State Theatre Centre | til Oct 24 | ★ ★ ★ 

Black Swan State Theatre Company have faced a lot of set backs in brining Van Badham’s update to George Orwell’s Animal Farm to the stage. The production was originally set to premiere in September 2020 but was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Now it’s made it to the State Theatre over 12-months later.

Three talented actors take to the stage to portray a troupe of different characters. Andrea Gibbs, Megan Wilding and Alison Van Reeken each play around 17 different characters in a combination of live performances and pre-recorded video sequences. They show amazing stamina, tackling the fast costume changes, fast changing scenes and long monologues.

The stage features a massive screen, a metal staircase and platform, and a background filled with fences. At first it reminded me of entering a large multi-stage music festival. Which then lead me to a realisation that I’d spend many weekends in my youth as the human equivalent of cattle.

There was a constant reaction of giggles and laughs from the opening night audience as the animated and energetic performances were delivered. However there were occasions that the monologues were going so fast it was hard to keep up with the lines.

Over the course of 90 minutes the chickens, sheep, cows, pigs and horses – and people, are brought to life. Alison van Reeken recently got great acclaim for her portrayal of a cat in Ian Sinclair’s Nocturna, here she totally nailed being a horse.

There is also an incredibly effective soundtrack, created by Rachael Dease, which brought the world to life.

The production features a lot of scenes, interspersed with pre-recorded video segments, lots of entrances and exits. Then the large majority of the text is delivered in monologue. An actor speaking at length on stage can be a powerful moment, here the large volume of monologues, which at times makes it monotonous. The combination of the comings-and-goings, the video segments, and the long speeches creates some challenges.

George Orwell’s novel was published in 1945, a satirical tale of a group of farm animals who overthrow their human masters and begin running the farm themselves, they dream of more just and equal world, but as time goes on they end up seeing their rights and freedoms chipped away. Eventually the farm animals end up living under the reign of a dictator, a pig named Napoleon.

Orwell didn’t hold back from confirming his tale was an allegory for recent invents in Russia, from the revolution of 1917 which saw the overthrow of the Tsar, through to the subsequent 1923 establishment of the Bolshevik Soviet Union and the rise of Joseph Stalin. Here author Van Badham shifts the tale into our modern world, the age of ‘fake news’, a 24-hour media cycle, making countries great again, and the era of Trump.

If this production has been presented as intended, back before President Trump left office, it may have had more resonance. Now that’s Trump’s back lounging at Mar-A-Lago, the text loses its power, too late to be a reflection on what is happening right now, too soon to be looking back on the last eight years.

That’s not to say that the ideas inserted into this retelling do not remain relevant to politics today, but they many of the references are quite Trump specific, and therefore as out of fashion as last month’s TikTok trend. It also feels like Orwell’s original motivation, a commentary of Russian politics in the first half of the 20th century, is sold short by attempts to update the text.

Is Animal Farm a comedy? Orwell certainly intended his tale to serve as a warning, but has book studied by generations of High School students ever previously been a laugh-out loud experience?

Here – there is an interesting proposition – have we begun to treat politics as entertainment? Instead of sharing clips of Donald Trump recalling “Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV.”, should there have been more analysis of his policy shortcomings? Do we treat daily COVID-19 briefings like they are a sports report with latest scores? Are we more focused on the robo-calls and giant yellow billboards, than the political influence being welded?

In 2021 Animal Farm and the ideas it generates are very relevant, but as a theatrical experience this production, for me, fell short of expectations.

Graeme Watson 

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