Belgrade Theatre review: Animal Farm
Animal Farm, Belgrade Theatre, to 16 April By Annette Kinsella There are lies, damn lies, and post-truth politicians. On the week when both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor were fined for attending lockdown parties that supposedly didn’t exist, George Orwell’s 1945 farmyard allegory Animal Farm has never felt less theatre and more documentary.
The production, skilfully adapted by director Robert Icke, tells the story of the Russian Revolution through a farmyard uprising in which the animals’ human oppressors are ousted. But the newfound Utopia quickly descends into corruption and misery as mendacious pigs step seamlessly into the farmer’s shoes, leaving the animals worse off than ever. Pulling off a stage show in which the cast is almost entirely comprised of animals is no mean feat, but puppetry expert Toby ‘War Horse’ Olie manages it with aplomb. The dictator pig Napoleon, based on Stalin and operated by three performers, is suitably menacing and boorish – no pun intended – even managing to intimidate the audience from the stage.
The animation and characteristics of the puppets were faultlessly executed – hens flapped and fluttered, horses whinnied and shook their manes, cats prowled and pounced – to the extent that the curtain call in which the human performers revealed themselves came almost as a surprise. The action was kept pacey with constantly changing perspectives – battles were slowed to capture the images of slaughter, while military-style bulletins listing the names and ages of casualties were beamed above the stage.
But impressive as the puppetry was, it was the overall message of the story that resonated most with a modern audience. The animals’ palpable confusion as slippery spin doctor pig Squealer smoothly adapts the revolution’s commandments to accommodate the pigs’ vices cannot help but conjure real-life images of rose garden press conferences to explain questionable lockdown behaviour.
The constant cutting of the animals’ rations as part of the greater cause, while the pigs enjoy extra mash, unhappily recalls current money-saving tips to help families heat their homes in the face of spiralling energy costs. Ultimately, cynical goat Benjamin has the final haunting words as he reads the one remaining – and heavily adapted – animal commandment: ‘All animals are equal. But some animals are more equal than others.’
In today’s society, this sentiment has never been so poignant.