From the moment we enter the theatre, our focus is drawn to two black L-shaped platforms on which the performance will take place. Illuminated only by house lights, the resemblance the stage has to a coffin and tombstone is ingeniously disquieting.
Sound bites of recent political discourse herald the stage lights, but this is the only modernisation to the caustic satire by George Orwell. Director Geordie Brookman has wisely resisted the temptation to alter the classic; this performance is an almost verbatim, truncated version of the novella first published in 1945. Animal Farm is Brookman’s final show as Artistic Director of State Theatre Company South Australia and he’s decided to go out with a very big bang.
Renato Musolino in State Theatre Company South Australia’s Animal Farm. Photo © James Hartley
Maintaining the work’s vital dramatic irony by adhering to the third-person narration, a floating head storyteller commences the terrifyingly ageless beast fable about the breakdown of political ideology and misuse of power, packed with apathy, propaganda and corruption. The lilting voice almost lulls us into a false sense of security before we are transported, with a somewhat rude awakening, into the revolution.
Designer Bianka Kennedy’s minimalist set is revealed now to be a nod to the old stone windmills of the Manor Farm, and not our first macabre interpretation. Key to Snowball’s Trotskyite ideals on industry and technology, the choice of windmill is inspired. Lighting designer Alexander Ramsay cleverly transforms the inventive platform with the smallest alterations from farm, to something resembling the set of a game show, and later a battleground.
Renato Musolino gives a flawless performance of rare brilliance. In this Herculean one-man show, he plays the whole menagerie, bringing a seductive animal magnetism to even the most unlikeable creatures. He masters the tempos and rhythms of each character so precisely, and switches between with such ease, that there is never a question of who’s who in the zoo. The brains and brawn of the pigs and dogs are juxtaposed superbly, but there is subtlety here too. A slight movement of the head or jaw takes us from horse to sheep to hen. The fluidly changing accents and emphases also lend much to the performance as Musolino shows off his particular brand of animalism – braying, snorting and hee-hawing his way through a superb ninety minutes.
Perhaps for reasons of economy, Musolino does not attempt to sing ‘Beasts of England’ (described in the book as sounding like a combination of Oh My Darling, Clementine and La Cucaracha), but rather speaks it. It detracts little from its meaning to the rebellion.
The revolution betrayed, the finale brilliantly brings us full circle, again to Musolino’s floating head. A standing ovation greets the close. Animal Farm is an imaginative, expertly crafted retelling of a classic tale and an exceptional piece of theatre.
Animal Farm is at the Adelaide Festival Centre until 30 March. Tickets are sold out.
Dale March performs in the same production at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, May 1 – 3