first night

Animal Farm

Failing to tackle the meatier issues coherently, Ben Weaver-Hincks is slightly disappointed by Animal Farm

 With its allusions to freedom of speech, and its author’s concerns regarding censorship and the role of the press, Hild Bede Theatre could hardly have chosen a better week to stage Animal Farm. However, whilst attempts to point out the play’s relevance certainly are not lost, it does raise some questions: is Orwell’s novella ever going to work on stage, or are we simply too old to be watching people dress up as animals?

The production is not without its shortcomings, most of which lie in the script and the venue. The Ian Wooldridge adaptation cuts out some chaff, but takes a fair bit of wheat along with it. It also inserts a largely redundant narrator, whose primary function seems to be to inform the audience periodically that a certain character ‘was never seen again’, thereby destroying any sense of awe and mystery that these moments might otherwise have conjured. You can’t help but feel that this is a production for children, a sense reinforced by the use of Caedmon Hall – a venue more than vaguely reminiscent of a school assembly room, with its raised stage and high ceiling. Throw in some straw strewn across the stage and the (somewhat inexplicable) presence of a doll for most of the second half, and anyone looking on might think they had stumbled upon a somewhat blasphemous and highly post-modern nativity play.

But what the cast and crew manage to achieve with Animal Farm certainly outstrips the meagre expectations that such doubtful origins might suggest. As well as introducing some fine dramatic talent, director Hannah Brennan shows what can be done with limited resources and the constraints of an unwieldy performance space.

The challenge of playing human animals is one which the cast embraces with impressive skill. Jenny Hobbiss as Squealer is a highlight, succeeding in her creation of a human character with porcine characteristics, rather than a mere speaking pig. Jordan Millican, as Napoleon, is also compelling and appropriately sinister. His portrayal of the dictator is in fact perhaps more emotionally developed than Orwell would ever have intended or imagined, giving this political satire a psychological depth with which it is not often associated. Finally, Nick Rooney’s Boxer competently blends pathos and comedy, and is more than a little suggestive of an equine Neville Longbottom. Moments of weakness in the acting occur mainly when the actors abandon their major characters and have to take on more minor roles, which seem somewhat less nuanced. Less convincing, too, was narrator Will Hannam answering his phone halfway through the performance: it was far from clear whether this was bizarre contemporising or unforgivable negligence. Nevertheless, this is a play largely carried by its acting talent, and it is particularly refreshing to see some lesser-known faces on the stage.

Perhaps the most impressive moment of the performance is the ‘battle of the cow shed’. Use of the dark, echoing hall – and a cacophony of shouting – creates a powerful few minutes. Elsewhere, moments of intensity are created with soundscapes and silences, which the cast of eight handles deftly and with ease. Unfortunately, though well-executed, these instances can be a little abrupt or poorly-timed: one particular moment of silence stretched out to the point where the audience became restless, and it did not seem to serve much dramatic purpose. Likewise, with some of the action happening behind the audience, necks are craned on more than one occasion. By and large however, the dynamism and use of the space are positive elements that bring the play down from the stage and into the audience.

Attempts throughout the play to relate it to current events are aided by this blurring of stage boundaries, but perhaps other opportunities are missed in this regard. Whilst the USSR is no longer a particularly potent target for satire, there is plenty of more contemporary meat here for the animals to get their teeth into: labour rights, energy security, political integrity, and, of course, the coalition government. Links are created mainly through recorded sounds clips of the likes of Jeremy Paxman and David Dimbleby, which bear varying levels of relevance to the play itself. These jar a little with the mood and setting of the production, and seem to have been inserted to create relevance for relevance’s sake. More successful is the self-conscious manner in which certain lines are delivered, both by the pig dictators and the supressed animals, so as to suggest the parallels where they are to be found.

HBT’s Animal Farm tells a story and it tells it well. But allegory, when transferred to the stage, requires a little more interpreting to have an impact. It could be chilling; it could be deeply comic. Somehow, it is neither, so that a lot is left up to the script, which just is not up to the job. Animal Farm offers a fun evening, but lacks either theatrical spectacle or a truly coherent message. With a more appropriate venue however, and a more certain idea of where it is going, the show could prove an unlikely success. For now, I’m just happy to enjoy the quality of acting and the promising dramatic talent that the play profiles.

* * *

Ben Weaver-Hincks

25 November 2011

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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