Humans good, puppets better? This adaptation of George Orwell’s classic allegory Animal Farm uses a captivating cast of puppets to tell the famous story of Napoleon, Boxer, and the other animals leading a doomed revolution.
The tale has been adapted and simplified by co-director Robert Icke, but retains the core story and its satire of Stalin’s brand of communism.
The famer is vilified by the animals, leading to a revolution that sees him chased from the farm by the beasts and a pledge to run it free from humans, with all animals equal. A series of commandments is gradually eroded, as the pigs take on a management role and set themselves aside from the other animals, cynically playing them off against each other. Porcine leader Napoleon all too quickly becomes a mirror of the human tyrant they once railed against.
You don’t have to look too hard to find contemporary resonance in the story, with its confected enemies, leaders’ loose relationships with the truth, and the sometimes willing, sometimes naive acquiescence that allows bad behaviour to flourish.
Toby Olie’s puppet designs are impressive with a talented crew of 14 handling 30 life sized puppets and several smaller dioramas that lend something of a cinematic feel to the production. We ‘cut’ between close ups and long shots, particularly when focusing on carthorse Boxer – a mammoth puppet, but also a smaller spec pulling relentlessly across the fields.
The voice cast includes Robert Glenister and Juliet Stevenson, whose recorded dialogue is closely matched by the puppeteer’s control of the animals, with speech liberally flecked with snorts, shudders, and the most subtle physical movements.
The story is at times a rather bleak one with death never far away, and the production doesn’t shy away from that. While some of the most gruesome dispatches are delivered in blackout, they are plenty of uncomfortable moments as the brutality of life on the farm are writ large.
The play is a tight 90-minute straight run and never once flags. The nature of Orwell’s story makes it a challenging one to bring to the stage but this bold and imaginative production manages it with style and impact.
- Animal Farm continues at Norwich Theatre Royal until Saturday, March 12