Theatre review: Animal Farm

Theatre Royal Bath until 5 March
Words by Melissa Blease

In his 1946 essay Why I Write, George Orwell described Animal Farm as “the first book in which I tried, with full consciousness of what I was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.” 

Now 76 years later, and the headlines are dominated with the kind of political purpose that influenced Orwell’s worst nightmares when he was writing his allegorical farmyard-based tale that describes – in ostensibly easy to digest, political satire format – how ruthless tyrants with narcissistic personality disorders will do everything it takes to get what they want, regardless of the impact on the world around them. Meanwhile…

Director Robert Icke’s brand new stage production of Animal Farm has taken Orwell’s artistic purpose and breathed new life into it. As you’d expect from a director oft-described as “the great hope of British theatre” it’s a spectacular production on multiple levels, featuring puppetry by Toby (War Horse) Olié and designed by four-time Olivier Award winner Bunny Christie. 

All the characteristics that makes a horse a horse, or a pig a pig, or a dog/cat/sheep/goat/hen/goose/etc a dog/cat/sheep/goat/hen/goose/etc are meticulously, effectively and affectionately brought to life on stage by 14 puppeteers/masters of the art of physical theatre who crouch around or behind Olié’s animals, all of them – from leading roles to supporting characters – as expressive, or graceful, or funny, or fervent as each scene requires them to be, their dialogue provided by voiceovers recorded by 10 actors including Juliet Stevenson, Kevin Harvey and Robert Glenister. 

The cast of Animal Farm. Photo credit Manuel Harlan

“Working in unique harmony with the production’s shimmering modernity, Olié’s animals (and their handlers) work a unique kind of magic that serves to take us back to a time-honoured theatrical tradition that special effects, CGI, VR and all the other contemporary technology ‘innovations’ that allow our emotions and our intellect to disengage can never do.” 

Christie’s sparse set is beautifully lit by lighting designer Jon Clark (crikey, Icke’s production team alone reads like a roll call of a who’s who/crème de la crème of the very best of British theatre right now), marked at key points with overhead projected text depicting the time frame eventually – and increasingly – punctuated by sombre bulletins giving the name and cause of death of each animal that we come to know and love as the story shifts from the optimism of plans for rebellion to the harsh reality of a revolution overthrown. Their journey may be bleak, but there’s humour in the mix too, and personality, and lashings of humanity; it’s all breathtakingly emotive, and reactions to certain scenes are palpably visceral.

Icke’s Animal Farm is flawless in execution, reinvigorating a tale that’s so familiar to so many of us and revitalising a trail that Orwell blazed so many decades ago in an exquisitely elegant way. Working in unique harmony with the production’s shimmering modernity, Olié’s animals (and their handlers) work a unique kind of magic that serves to take us back to a time-honoured theatrical tradition that special effects, CGI, VR and all the other contemporary technology ‘innovations’ that allow our emotions and our intellect to disengage can never do. 

It’s unfortunate (to say the very least) that Orwell’s stark reminder of the tactics used by those in power to build and retain their authority is all-too-relevant an admonition today. If ever there was a production that’s totally, utterly prescient right now, it’s this one. 

Boxer (puppeteers Elisa De Gray, Matt Tait and Rayo Patel) and Squeela (puppeteers Ailsa Dalling and Matt Churcher) – Credit Manuel Harlan

Main image: Animal Farm – Clover (puppeteers Yana Penrose and Edie Edmundson) and Boxer (puppeteers Elisa De Grey, Matt Tait and Rayo Patel). Photo credit Manuel Harlan

Cockerel image: Cockerel with puppeteer Rayo Patel in Animal Farm. Photo credit Manuel Harlan

theatreroyal.org.uk