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BrumHour was invited to see Animal Farm by Birmingham Rep
By Eleanor Lawson twitter.com/elle_lawson
Review: Animal Farm at Birmingham Rep
Adapted and Directed by Robert Icke
Robert Icke is notorious for adapting literary classics, for stripping away the dust of history and plunging his hands beneath a story’s flesh to find its beating heart. Hamlet, Mary Stuart, Uncle Vanya, Oresteia, 1984. And now, Animal Farm.
George Orwell wrote Animal Farm as an allegory of Stalin’s Soviet Union when the UK was in a wartime alliance with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany.
But the story of hierarchy, power, and political abuse is a tale as old as time.
The pigs in Animal Farm decree that no animals should enter the house, wear human clothes, walk on two legs … until they decide to. Of course, this is a privilege no other animal is allowed.
As Animal Farm debuts on the Birmingham Rep stage, the country is anxiously awaiting Sue Gray’s report about the succession of Downing Street parties where senior politicians may have appeared to party as the rest of the country locked themselves away. The stark difference between leaders and their people has never been more clear. This is a story for right here and right now.
Animal Farm sees a group of animals stage a revolution against their farmer. Overturning the oppressive human leadership of the farm, the animals decide to run their own farm for their own prosperity with a set of rules to preserve their rights. However, as time passes, the equality of the animals starts to erode as the pigs take more and more privileges from themselves. And as nearly the only animals who can read, truth becomes malleable and they start to fashion their own history of the farm.
The heart of the play is, of course, the animals, brought to life by Toby Olié’s beautiful puppetry. There are a whole farmyard of animals in all shapes and sizes, from a gigantic horse that takes your breath away with its sudden entrance, to the most endearing of pigeons, chickens, and geese. Through the biology of the puppetry and the craft of the actors moving them, the animals are remarkably lifelike. A cat stretches in a slow luxurious yawn and reminds me of my own pets. Weighted springs in the pigs’ ears cause them to twitch as the animals speak. Mid-argument, a goose flaps her wings in an indignant huff.
The actors onstage are perfectly visible, but somehow they just seem to melt away. Voiceovers have been recorded by a separate cast of actors, so the bodies on stage focus solely on bringing the physicality of the puppets to life. Even more menacing is the actors manipulating the pigs who wear black balaclavas. Their bodies dissolve into the background as if the pigs are animating themselves. While the other actors reflect emotion on their faces for animals like the sheep, the pigs remain unknowable in their nature. We’re left to worry about their scheming.
A screen above the stage moves us through the timeline of the piece, but also announces the death of each animal. It’s a swift kick in the teeth each time we see an animal fall, but is darkly comic in the juxtaposition of the deaths and the cosy names – the names usually associated with elderly ladies followed by acts of treason. It’s a devastating story but it knows how to deploy its humour.
Robert Icke’s production is a masterpiece – cinematic in its scope and haunting in its delivery. The production is ninety minutes without any interval but it has the propulsion of a thriller and leaves you gasping in your seat. Quite frankly, it’s perfect theatre.
Animal Farm is at Birmingham Rep until Saturday 5th February. Book tickets here: birmingham-rep.co.uk/whats-on/animal-farm.