Animal Farm – The HOUSE, Birmingham REP

Reviewer: James Garrington

Writer: George Orwell

Adaptor: Robert Icke

Director: Robert Icke

“Absolute power corrupts absolutely”. So said Lord Acton, and it is seldom seen more clearly than in George Orwell’s classic novella Animal Farm. When the book was published at the end of the Second World War, it was written as a political parable based on observations of the 1917 Russian Revolution and the post-revolution Stalinist era and founded on Orwell’s own experiences during the Spanish Civil War – but it represents a story that we have seen repeated many times over the years since then, and still has enormous relevance today.

Major, the old boar, has a dream. It is a dream of a better life, a life where all animals will be free. All they have to do is rid themselves of their oppressors and a utopian future awaits. They will take back control.

Of course, the reality doesn’t work out quite like that. As we find ourselves living through a post-truth political era, many of the themes presented evoke echoes of what we see going on around us. As the dream of equality crumbles with the pigs forcing their way to the top of the hierarchy that is steadily re-imposed, they start to think that maybe the rules don’t apply to them. Then they quietly change the rules to suit themselves, trying to gaslight the others into believing the rules always said that, and shouting down the ones who speak out. Everything that goes wrong is someone else’s fault, and some animals find themselves labelled enemies and traitors, with a purge of anyone even remotely suspected of dissent.

This contemporary take on Orwell’s story is undoubtedly an important piece of theatre, an Animal Farm for our times. The concept, design, direction and performance all gel together superbly to create something quite special. When the characters in your story are mostly animals, that presents a challenge – and the answer is, of course, puppets. Designed by Toby Olié these are not puppets for the sake of creating a bit of magic, or comedy, but pretty much life-size recreations of animals who are real characters – and they are magnificent, operated by an ensemble cast of actor-puppeteers and voiced by a host of well-known names. The pigs, the cat, the birds, the shire horse, they all come to life on the REP stage and display all of the mannerisms and movement you expect to find from each individual creature. Robert Icke’s adaptation provides an engrossing piece of storytelling, and the 90 minute running time passes quickly. The design (Bunny Christie) and lighting (Jon Clark) work well together to create an atmosphere that moves from the warm and intimate barn interior at the start to a cold and bleak snowy winter – but not for all, of course. So we move from “All animals are equal” to the suffix “but some are more equal than others” as it becomes impossible to distinguish the authoritarian regime of the pigs from that of the human.

Animal Farm is one of the must-see plays for 2022, a second world premiere from the REP in a 50th anniversary season that has already included What’s New Pussycat – a sign of a bright future at a time when much of the creative industry is struggling.

Runs until 5 February 2022

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A must-see for 2022

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