Robert Icke’s triumphant take on George Orwell’s Animal Farm is not for kids, even when it’s been co-produced by the Children’s Theatre Partnership with an 11+ age rating. A classic allegory for the horrors of communism, necks are cracked, sheep are executed at point-blank range and a whole load of animals are massacred for treachery. It’s dark, gritty and bleak, which is as much a testament to Icke’s ability to truly understand Orwell (see his hugely successful co-adaptation of 1984) as it is an indication of who this show is aimed at.
Consider it as being akin to War Horse – not least because the family show appeals to adults first and foremost, but also because Animal Farm’s puppets are designed with exceptional attention to detail by Toby Olié (who worked on the hit National Theatre production). If you think about the final sentences of Orwell’s famous tale, about it being impossible to distinguish between the rebellious animals and man, then the use of puppetry is not only practical, but marvellously fitting.
And a short story requires an equally short duration. A 90-minute running time shaves off a lot of the extensive descriptions of labour in the novella, and of those remaining, the majority are demoted to miniature puppetry at the back of the stage, so as to not detract from the main action at the farm and imply a sense of scale and geography. The animal puns, meanwhile, are easy jokes to be made, but land nonetheless – as do the sheeps’ brainwashed assertion of “four legs good; two legs bad” from the source material. However, in cutting down an already short story for the stage, plot holes become an inevitable risk, and after a failed attempt to regain ownership of his farm, we do not learn of Mr Jones’ fate (which is made clear in the novel).
Such is the short duration of the play, the length of book from which it originates and the fact that it is a touring production that Animal Farm is minimalist in its staging at the Birmingham Rep. Legendary designer Bunnie Christie’s set design consists of a handful of corrugated metal walls and barn doors, while two headlights are enough to denote a farmer’s car. All of this is to instead place emphasis on the puppetry, which as mentioned already, is quite remarkable.
Unlike shows such as Life of Pi and War Horse, where the puppets are voiced by those manoeuvring them, the animals here are personified by voice actors – including the likes of long-term Icke collaborator Juliet Stevenson. This can only mean that the choreography and puppetry is matched and timed to recordings, which is all the more impressive.
Alongside the return of Stevenson, it’s another Orwell outing for Icke, staged in his traditional cinematic, multimedia style – each scene marked with text on an overhead projector and ominous beeping. Its usage excels itself when the deaths start rolling in, and several names of animals and their cause of death blink onto the projector with a bell toll. The existentialism around a life of work then death, and its morbidity, is brutally underscored by such a small device, though its eeriness makes for thrilling viewing.
In Icke’s Animal Farm, The Revolution may be small, but it sure is mighty.
Animal Farm had its final performance at the Birmingham Rep on 5 February. It is now on a UK tour until May.
Production Images: Manuel Harlan.