On Wednesday night, having ventured far beyond the all-too-familiar Fallowfield/Oxford Road corridor, I journeyed home with three peculiarly similar thoughts on my mind. As I considered how I could sum up the show I had seen at Ziferblat Café, I couldn’t stop thinking that:
a) I am a film student who has never seen The Godfather (1972);
b) I am a drama student who has never seen The Tempest;
c) I am an English student who has never read Animal Farm.
Suffice to say, having been thoroughly entertained by the Drama Society’s latest ‘Autumn Showcase’, I feel a telling urge to change the final of those three facts.
For that was what the stage version of Animal Farm seemed to do, it tantalised its audience with an enthralling and (especially, given recent political manoeuvres in our country’s foreign policy) highly appropriate story. Director Monique Touko opted to stage George Orwell’s familiar allegorical tale, where horn and hoof become hammer and sickle, in accordance with Nelson Bond’s 1961 adaptation. A story of revolution against the tyrannous humans leading to the birth and eventual decay of ‘Animalism’, the script certainly felt like a challenge, yet one that was wholeheartedly pulled off.
Touko and producer Lily Ashton deserve extensive praise for putting on this particularly chilling play with a palpable degree of restraint. It felt as though the script could have fallen into hyperbole quite easily, yet it was testament to the strength of their production that it in no way did. In what felt like an adherence to the theatrical mantra of ‘less is more’, the set was bare, the performances were understated, the lighting and sound were quietly sinister and the audience was on edge throughout. This was crucial in solidifying the plot’s dark and otherworldly feel, which might have been lost with too heavy-handed an approach.
When animalised communist workers talk about how old they are at age eleven, when they react with shock to others putting on clothes, when they describe the tyranny of humans who sleep in beds, the reaction could be comical. Yet the eerie atmosphere of the production, and indeed the entire studio space in which it was staged, ensured that the strength of Orwell’s original text was carried.
Despite this, I felt that in some ways the play itself wasn’t fully trusted. The decision to set the action amidst the 1984 – 85 miners’ strike, with references to contemporary politicians and slogans at the beginning and end of the show, for me, didn’t work. I felt that the allegory clouded the issues being discussed and, with some of the cast, the accents that were adopted got in the way of very strong performances. Touko and her production team clearly felt the need to highlight the relevance of the narrative, yet I felt as though the play would have succeeded in doing this based on its own merit. Nevertheless, with standout performances from the entire cast (to such a degree that I cannot specify anyone for individual praise) this was a strong and very enjoyable play. What more could I have expected from the same team behind A Number, which took place around the same time last year?
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