Writer: George Orwell
Adaptor: Robert Icke
Director: Robert Icke
Orwell’s novella, an allegorical tale about Stalinism in the form of the animals of Manor Farm who rise in a revolution to drive out the humans and strive for a home in which all animals are equal, has been brought to life on stage thanks to the puppetry of Toby Olié.
Robert Icke’s take on the classic, while co-produced by the Children’s Theatre Partnership, is certainly not a toned-down version of the book aimed at kids. This telling stays true to the original with all of the brutality and horror which serve as a warning against communism brought to life on stage here. There are broken necks, executed sheep, and many other poignantly dark moments in this telling.
The stars of this show are arguable; is it the incredibly detailed life-sized puppets, or is it the puppeteers? Staying true to the final lines of the novella, as the audience looks from puppet to man, and man to puppet, it’s almost impossible to say which is which. The skill of these puppeteers is such that within a few minutes of watching the show, they become almost at one with the creatures. The imposing entrance of Boxer the draft horse showcases the skill of the puppeteers of a large scale but it is actually in the smaller creatures where we really see their ability. In particular, the chickens and the cat are given real personalities and intent not through their spoken lines, but through their mannerisms and movement.
The voices of the animals are prerecorded which creates an impressive feat of timing for the puppeteers but does leave the show with a sense of something lacking. The actors have read their lines to bring their characters to life, but something about this process makes it feel as though you are just hearing the lines of each character read aloud, and not that they are interacting with each other and bringing an energy to the show. This becomes clearest when the farm is invaded by multiple humans and the stage comes alive with movement, tension, and drive, in a way that is otherwise absent.
The staging itself reflects this slimmed-down narrative, with metal walls, torches, and not a lot else, the puppets themselves are really able to take centre stage and focus the narrative on their experiences and emotions. Given the impressive complexity of the puppets and the skill of those operating them, this is a choice that serves the play well. Adding to this minimalistic set is the ominous counter above the stage, marking each animal’s demise and its cause with a bell toll serving as a constant reminder of the mounting death toll.
This minimalistic take on Animal Farm comes with its shorter narrative and bare walls which at times makes the show feel rather anaemic, does allow the focus to be on the puppets themselves as a means of creating the allegorical warning. The purpose of Animal Farm, written as a warning in 1944, is as poignant today as it was when it was first conceived, making this a play not merely worth watching for the immersive world of the puppets and skill of their creators, but a play we should all see as a reminder of the importance of its message.
Runs Until: 12 March 2022