Animal Farm - Shake & Stir
The Canberra Theatre’s Playhouse hosted the Russian revolution on Thursday night, with an engaging performance of Queensland company Shake & Stir’s touring production of Animal Farm.
Orwell’s 1945 novella, adapted for the stage by Nick Skubij, retells the Bolshevik revolution as an uprising of farm animals against a cruel farmer, with the noble ideals of the working animals perverted by the smart but greedy pigs.
Film adaptations such as 1954 animated movie evoke a moral fable by showing the characters as real animals, however director Michael Futcher draws on the Brechtian tradition in political theatre and puts his focus on the artistry of the performers. He eschews outlandish animal costumes for evocative physicality, with the stomp of a foot for a horse, or a gnarled fist a pig’s trotter. We marvel at these adroit actors rather than falling blind into the tumult of the story, free to consider the moral with icy clarity. The most shocking moments are when the actors shed the mannered distance between human and animal, changing words for feral snarls and swipes.
The production clings to Orwell’s lean and straightforward text for a story of a farm that draws vigour from the personalities that defined the Russian revolution, with the adaptation’s main nods to the hallucinatory kaleidoscope of modern politics in a few throwaway references to “fake information”. Political violence, personality cults, misinformation and scapegoating are as relevant today as they were in 1945, but the audience must make their own leap of interpretation if they want to go beyond Orwell’s intended criticism of Stalin and Goebbels.
The five actors that make the farm are excellent, with highlight roles Darcy Brown’s conniving Squealer, Tim Dashwood’s strident Snowball, Nelle Lee’s sympathetic Mollie, Gideon Mzembe’s stalwart Boxer, and Steven Rooke’s deranged Napoleon. Brown’s Squealer is elevated to primary antagonist, a faceless man shaping reality with his words, with his chief Napoleon a figurehead devoured by gluttony. Nelle Lee’s portrayal of pampered horse Mollie was surprisingly sympathetic: with sugar and ribbons on offer, why endure the grime and misery of the farm?
The grungy barnyard design by Josh McIntosh was interesting terrain for the actors, in particular a swinging gate with a mind of its own, with the verticality often seen in McIntosh’s sets used for strong effect in the hoisting of the farm’s trotter and sickle flag, and in a chicken on strike’s miraculous leap into the rafters. Ominous lights by Jason Glenwright and jagged sounds by Guy Webster enhanced the gritty, authentic feel. Costumes were perfect for the production, with tradie singlets and heavy boots caked in grime, but offset by playful animal ears.
Much like Orwell’s novella, this ten-year-old production has stood the test of time. The adaptation lacks the satirical fire that comes from direct attacks on contemporary figures (even the Wharf Revue has more bite), but instead has the thoughtful and poetic quality of political tragedy framed as madcap history. With brilliant actors and clarity of vision in direction and production design, the important messages of Animal Farm here have a lucidity that honours Orwell.