A tale for our times: Animal Farm as a stage production

This review was first presented by Katy-jo Murfin at the end of the UK Column News broadcast on 9 May. The May tour of which the described production was a part has now ended.

The older children at our Sussex home educators’ group, HOPE, have been studying Animal Farm in their English literature lessons with their teacher Sadie, and during the Easter holidays I’d taught a three-day drama workshop in which our children rehearsed and performed a ten-minute adaptation of the book.

So on 5 May, we took a trip to Canterbury to watch the latest touring production of George Orwell’s noted dystopia. 

As we arrived at the theatre, we could see thick crowds of schoolchildren being herded like cattle—and it felt surreal as I was thinking what comparison to our lives today they might see in this work. Is it the same one that the Guardian made?

As a performer, one of my biggest pet hates is disrespect when someone is onstage. The audience of teenage schoolchildren were initially being quite noisy and disruptive, and I was thinking this was going to ruin the whole play if they didn’t settle down. But a testimony to the excellence of the drama itself is that after the first scene, the play became so hard-hitting that every person in the audience was captivated and there wasn’t another peep out of any of them. 

The award-winning creative team have produced an extremely powerful piece of theatre that is well worth going to see. 

It is directed by Robert Icke—who is in fact a distant cousin of David Icke’s, although they have never met, apparently. From what I can gather from his interviews, they are not on the same page with regard to their opinions either.

This isn’t the first of George Orwell’s novels that Icke has directed. He co-adapted and co-directed a version of 1984 that was performed on Broadway in 2017, which was so gory and intense that four audience members fainted during one performance.

His Animal Farm, too, is not for the faint-hearted, younger children or children with a sensitive nature. It moved many adults to tears.

Another member of the creative team is multi-award-winning theatre designer Bunny Christie, who won her third Oliver Award and a Tony Award for the incredible production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It was a fantastic adaptation and one that I was lucky enough to see in the West End. That autism-themed work is a favourite book of mine, and the show blew me away. With Animal Farm, her choice of a minimalist set, extremely clever lighting on the black—mostly empty—stage, and the use of slow-motion pauses during the dramatic chase and fight scenes gave the performance an incredibly cold, dangerous and dramatic atmosphere.

The final piece of the jigsaw in this outstanding creative team is the incredibly realistic puppetry by Toby Olié. He went straight from the puppetry course at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama to War Horse at the National Theatre, where he played the hind legs of Joey the horse, before taking control of the head when it transferred to the West End. If you have had the chance to see this adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse, you will know what I mean when I say that the horse puppets in that play were so realistic, it was hard to watch some of the brutal scenes.

In an interview posted by Stage Talk, Olié says:

[The challenge with Animal Farm is that] every character apart from the farmer is an animal. We have over 30 life-sized puppets, from a huge cart horse to tiny pigeons, so it’s a question of how to get maximum range of articulation in so many puppets with only 14 operators. Boxer the cart horse has three operators, but Clover – who we’ve changed from a horse to a cow – can only have two. All of the animal characters talk too, which is a challenge, but we found a really interesting way of making it work: we tell the story using each animal’s physicality but when you hear their dialogue it’s as if their actions are being translated for you. We’re also shifting perspective during the show, so you see moments of high octane action in miniature puppet scale, and the intimate, internal moments with the life-sized puppets. The construction of the animals took eight and a half months – the longest puppet build we’ve ever undertaken.

The puppetry is so cleverly lifelike that the murders leave you feeling stunned and shocked, and there were many wet cheeks amongst the audience. Some children had to leave as it was so upsetting, and one of the students we took said it was more traumatic than her grandfather’s funeral.

This is an outstanding production of a timeless story that is always relevant. It’s a book that nearly every British generation studies at some point in their education, and every reader will draw his or her own comparisons to what is relevant at the given time. The Guardian, in the above-linked review of a Tyneside performance of the production, made the most obvious of these, and I know this isn’t going to come as a shock.

Arifa Akbar says:

Ever since 1945, when George Orwell published his anthropomorphised farmyard allegory of the Russian revolution and Soviet slide into totalitarianism, it has felt newly relevant in whichever era it is revived, not least our own of contested truths and lies. But it speaks especially loudly in a week when Vladimir Putin risks being confirmed as Russia’s latter-day Napoleon – the pugnacious boar and autocratic leader of Animal Farm.

There is—not surprisingly—not one comparison offered in the article to the current global slide into totalitarianism that is happening in every country at a rapid rate right now. The mainstream media, and its huge role in this with its propaganda and gaslighting, is portrayed perfectly in the play by Squealer, who reassures the animals it’s all for the greater good and you will be happier than before and you should be grateful for this life of never-ending hard work just to make ends meet, whilst the pigs, the fat cats, live the life of Reilly. The transition of Napoleon, as he finally becomes more human, was eerily like watching him turn into Boris Johnson. His gluttonous behaviour, as the rest of the farm animals starve and are worked to death, was a striking parable for me of the Partygate shenanigans conducted whilst the rest of the country were starved of physical contact with their loved ones.

And yet there was not one relevant comparison from any of the mainstream journalists. 

The way in which the play announced the death of each character was startling and profoundly moving. The action would move from a high-energy chase and fight scene to a complete blackout, a loud death knell rang through the auditorium, and on the screen at the top of the stage an epitaph appeared in white letters with the name of the character, what species they were, their age, and how they died: either executed or killed in action.  

You visibly saw the audience draw a breath at these moments during the play, and this reaction was only possible because the puppetry was so superbly lifelike.

The play is peppered with some much needed comedy from the sheep, the cat, and my favourite, the chickens. Their puppets and voiceovers are extremely funny and offer that well-needed break from the darkness of the story. 

The death of the animals for me symbolised the censorship happening today. You go against or question the mainstream narrative, and you are a domestic terrorist. And, as we know, some people have actually lost their livelihoods and lives through trying to warn people of the lies and the agenda.

The comparison of the animals’ inability to read their overlords’ commandments to the way in which our children are being dumbed down through the education system was clear as day to me. Orwell’s pigs quickly use education, and the lack of it, to manipulate the other animals. Napoleon saw education as a way of indoctrinating “right-thinking” citizens from a young age. 

I believe the powers that be have rewritten history time and time again, and—just like the farm animals—we have so quickly forgotten what life used to really be like. The animals were lied to and told that the farm was a lot better than it used to be, just as we are being lied to now. You are safer with constant CCTV surveillance, you are safer with social distancing, you are safer having your contact with family and friends through a screen. Lethal injections will save you from deadly diseases

The planet can be saved if we use electric cars and spend ridiculous amounts of money on face masks for cows!

George Orwell’s message that powerful people are cruel and selfish whether they are Conservative or Labour, capitalists or communists, humans or pigs is, I would say, spot on and brilliantly transferred to the stage in this production.

They lie to us and manipulate us, and they will never stop until we take our power back and simply say no. We do not comply, and we do not want your new normal!