Animal Farm is a critically acclaimed novel by George Orwell that was met with controversy upon its release in 1945, as Britain was in an alliance with Russia against Nazi Germany and the novel is extremely critical of Stalinism. However, as the Cold War began, the novel grew in popularity.
As the novel is quite intense, I was extremely curious about how this would be brought to life on stage at The Lowry, and I wasn’t disappointed.
For context, Animal Farm is an allegory for Stalinism and the demise of the Russian revolution, which gave way for little meaningful change for the average person in Russia. Despite their hope, many were starved and worked to death at the hands of the state.
Animal Farm broadly spans across the start of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution to the paranoia of Stalin’s reign. Now, imagine that dark part of history as a satirical tale of animals taking over a farm after the brutality of a farmer, and that’s Animal Farm in a nutshell. It’s dark, it’s compelling, and it’s definitely worth a read.
First of all, the puppetry. Oh wow, the puppetry. Each character was magical – the designs of the puppets were impressive, as were the puppeteers behind the animals. The mannerisms were impeccable for each type of animal, with impressive dog-like statures, flustered feathered chickens and slow majestic horses. I loved that each chicken was on a singular wheel as it made them quick to move, and strangely enough, I loved the goose puppet the most because it had such a dangly neck and long, frantic wings.
At the beginning, I heard some audience members laugh at the puppets, but towards the end of the show, I heard gasps and even tears as things started to go south for the animal’s revolution. That’s how powerful the performances were. Every character, apart from the farmer, is an animal, and despite this, the animals felt more human than the farmer ever could be. You learn about their lives and troubles, their fears and hopes, and it’s a harrowing watch to see their dreams fail.
Alongside the impressive puppetry, the sets were also impressive. Not the actual sets as such as it was largely fixed on different areas on the farm, but the amount of quick set changes were genuinely awe-worthy. By using a few simple panel changes, the mood entirely shifted, and we knew that time had passed or they were in a different space.
Above the stage, there was a screen, and when the stage faded to black, the screen lit up with the season or a specific date to showcase the passing of time, and this was an effective way of keeping the pace and unearthing the slow decline of faith in the corrupt leadership. I found this very simple but effective, and it enabled many set changes to occur. I also thoroughly enjoyed when the sets needed to go beyond the farm, as the team cleverly used tiny models of the animals and buildings alongside a dark background to portray the distance from the farm. This distance was also heightened by fast-paced anxious music, which was compelling throughout the entire play; the string instruments clearly conveyed the stakes set for the animals.
All in all, Animal Farm can be a tricky but worthwhile watch. Whilst the story is heavy, you are left in awe at how Orwell captured this moment in history, stunned by the performances of each character, through both the powerful voice acting and coordination of the puppeteers. I’ve never hated a puppet pig as much, nor mourned a puppet horse as intensely, but Napoleon and Boxer were fantastic characters that perfectly captured Stalin’s power-hungry yet paranoid reign over Russia and the Russian people’s dream of peace, bread and land.
Whilst it won’t be the most cheerful show you’ve ever seen – especially given the current conflict – if you get chance, do go to see a performance of Animal Farm so that we never forget the atrocity that occurred, and will keep occurring under dictatorships across the world.
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