Author Van Badham’s theatrical adaptation of George Orwell’s novella Animal Farm is a great showcase for the three female performers featured in this production: Andrea Gibbs, Alison Van Reeken and Megan Wilding, each of whom play multiple roles. Except for a slightly overlong section towards the end, the piece is choppy, with director Emily McLean keeping us jumping from scene to scene. Material alternates between televisual sketches projected onto a massive screen above the stage (designed by Fiona Bruce), or short exchanges and monologues on the forestage. All in all, it’s straightforward, engaging theatre. As political satire though it is odd if not downright confusing, suggesting an early draft of a more than usually surreal episode of Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell.
Orwell was an anarchist, and had little love for socialism, Stalinism, fascism or even wartime Britain. Although his novel 1984 critiques both Nazism and the Soviets, Animal Farm was unambiguously directed at Stalin. In the text, an animal revolution against oppressive humans is launched in the name of animal freedom and equality. This however leads to the replacement of the original masters by a new, elite class of pigs, who exploit the dedicated working animals for their own power and privilege. Rivals are eliminated, promises reneged upon or denied, new forms of mastery institutionalised and protected with rhetoric or violence from a squad of dogs.
The pig “Major” (played by Gibbs, wearing a soft plastic snout) is based on the leader of the 1917 Soviet Revolution who died shortly thereafter, namely Lenin. “Snowball” (also a snouted Gibbs) stands in for the dissident Communist Trotsky, who was eventually assassinated in exile, while “Napoleon” (played by Van Reeken) is Stalin himself.
Badham has spiced up the on stage action, and especially the video clips, with references to the 21st century. Snowball screens an online video before fleeing, the pony Mollie (Van Reeken again) becomes a young adult with a unicorn obsession who ends up creating her own online platform, various televisual pundits and interviews are ironically performed, and cheesy advertisements aired. Napoleon’s right-hander, Squealer, eventually puts on a pink jacket and gaudy pearls in an allusion to one of Trump’s many press secretaries, namely Sarah Huckabee Sanders. When Napoleon comes out from the wings to appear on a raised gantry, he performs more than a few Trumpisms, notably the flick of the hair and endlessly decrying “fake news”.
But this is as far as we get in rendering Animal Farm contemporary critique. Napoleon is attired in a gaudy epauletted military uniform, complete with a sash. Together with his pugnacious stance, hands at the waist, he recalls figures like Mussolini or Idi Amin rather than the blandly suited Trump, both of whom did in fact personally command armed groups. Trump was also notable for having no serious rivals in the Republican party, unlike Stalin, who arranged the death or imprisonment of not only Trotsky but Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev and others. When Badham’s humans launch a counter-revolution against the farm, we are shown footage of World War Two bombers. It is worth recalling, however, that no armed counter revolution against Trump or the Tea Party ever emerged, and that (though most people forget) the Soviet Union was in fact invaded by the US, the UK and other forces, between 1918 and 1920.
In short, the design, the characterisations, the narrative developments, and even Badham’s text, ensure that Major, Snowball and Napoleon remain approximations of three leaders of a Soviet-style armed rebellion and what Marx famously hoped would be “the dictatorship of the proletariat” or the collective working classes.
The most effective and interesting contemporary reference occurs when the chickens go on strike for better conditions. The three clucky on-screen dissidents hold up a “#ChickenLivesMatter” plaque. The weirdly compelling idea of white-feathered humans/chickens standing in for Black Lives Matter members had real potential, but Badham jettisons it as soon as it is introduced. In a nevertheless compelling theatrical moment, the chickens are quickly suppressed, with a handful of cinder-like feathers and a spoiled egg falling from the gallery to the floor below.
Although the production’s structure recalls episodic televisual sketch comedy, the tone is ambivalent. This is not a laugh riot. Indeed, McLean and the performers produce a curiously flat, steady mood, with only rare chuckles.
The use of multimedia is also quite simple. Action occurs on screen as a single block of activity (or once divided into two panels), or it occurs on stage. The two worlds rarely function in dialogue. The monumental position and scale of the screen recalls mid-20th century propaganda, but the multimedia theatre of socialist Erwin Piscator and Lázló Maholy-Nagy was far more dynamic, with multiple screens of different opacity, mobile on-stage elements, and so on. In short, McLean and videographer Michael Carmody eschew those diverse, endlessly morphing screen to stage relationships, which have been a feature of Australian performance since at least Arena Theatre Eat Your Young (2000; which had a screen that rotated in a circle around the central performance space) or Marianne Wheems’ The Builder’s Association (which toured in 2004).
This is not really a failing of the production, since both of the examples cited tended to focus on the flashy technology, producing complex but at times slightly vacuous work. Badham’s and McLean’s Animal Farm by contrast is presented in a quite straightforward manner, and the actors address the audience directly throughout. The acting is not classic psychological realism – it hardly could be with actors wearing rubber snouts – but it is not outsized caricature either (as much Soviet agitprop was). The ambience then is oddly muted, having a clear inevitability almost as soon as the revolution occurs – which is however consistent with Orwell’s vision.
Nevertheless, unlike Orwell, this production has no clear political target. It is a rather wonky bricolage of references, histories and materials. The multi-role casting, wonderful as it is, actually emphasises this, giving the roles a certain equality of importance and affect, which the characters themselves don’t possess in the narrative. It all makes for a good night out in the theatre, albeit one which is rather perplexing. Leaving the venue, I asked myself what do pigs, Stalin and Trump have to do with each other? In the end I had to conclude: not very much.
Animal Farm runs in the Heath Ledger Theatre at the State Theatre Centre, Perth until 24 October.