Review | Laura Money
Black Swan State Theatre Company catapults Animal Farm squealing into the twenty-first century with a faithful and fresh adaptation by Van Badham that proves how relatable the work has always been. Performed by a talented cast of three – Andrea Gibbs, Alison Van Reeken and Megan Wilding – the play covers everything in George Orwell’s original novella but intensifies its pertinence through contemporary technologies, personalities, and the pervasiveness of social media. It’s brilliantly crafted theatre that intelligently uses all aspects of stagecraft to create something memorable. Much like the book this play will enter social consciousness and take hold with its powerful imagery, and chilling message.
From the outset, Animal Farm grabs the bull by its horns and sets the tone of the whole show – on stage there is a giant screen dominating the frame with a set of stairs and a platform. Receding into the darkness are several metal fence sections reminiscent of a barn. As the audience settles in we are treated to a mock news report about the rise of Animalism, cleverly designed and created by Michael Carmody which serves as an innovative way to express exposition. After a little laughter, the report ends and a figure emerges from the darkness – it’s Gibbs on a walker as the elderly pig, Old Major. Gibbs brings gravitas to the character from the deep, gravelly voice, to the mannerisms she gets every bit right. Combining the remarkable costuming by Fiona Bruce, each of the performers take on all of their roles with convincing realism. From Old Major to the first pig in charge, Snowball, Gibbs adds an intimidating politician’s air to her performance. She is hilarious as Brenda the chicken, showcasing her quirky facial expressions in the medium of film but it is her turn as Clover the old horse who is careworn and dedicated to her partner Boxer that Gibbs displays a tenderness and humanity that ripples through the audience.
Megan Wilding proves to be just as versatile in her portrayal of Mr Whymper (a human), and slow burn characters Moses the crow and Benjamin the old donkey. Her tone and deliberately slow delivery makes you hang on every word, eliciting a sense that these characters are wise. Wilding also acts as Squealer, perhaps the character to go through the biggest transformation. Squealer is the exact target of propagandists irl (in real life) as is apparent when she bursts onto the stage with all the gossip from the ‘Battle of the Cowshed’ the biggest event of the year. Wilding is high-pitched and Valley girl in her delivery with quite a few OMGs peppering her story. She exuberantly holds her YouTube heroes up on a pedestal while regaling us with their achievements – it’s the perfect 21st century fit for the character. As Squealer moves up to right trotter pig, she starts wearing the farmer’s wife pearls, changing her speech and slowing down a bit to resemble a Sarah Palin, Julie Bishop type of toadie who is forever speaking on behalf of her beloved leaders – spreading lies and political spin with the sincerity of a dishrag.
The third player is celebrated performer Alison Van Reeken who brings her immense talents to perhaps the most diverse characters. From an excellent Leigh Sales impression to the stuck up horse Mollie, Van Reeken proves she is a versatile and intuitive performer. Mollie is one of the hardest characters to portray sympathetically as her defection from Animal Farm is so early on the sympathy is still being held with the pigs and other revolutionaries, yet Van Reeken navigates this masterfully – she leans in to the mannerisms of a fashion conscious, vain horse and is equal parts hilarious and sincere. After ousting Snowball, Van Reeken’s Napoleon the pig takes over as leader. As with any effective bogeyman less is more, and while Napoleon does give a few speeches, the majority of the work is done through body language. In full military regalia, Van Reeken struts, ramrod strait and arrogantly places her hand in her namesake’s pocket. She uses her hands in gestures and mannerisms that resemble Trump and exudes an intimidating presence whenever she is on stage.
Donald Trump and his inciting of violence is a huge influence on this work. Originally set to be on stage for the 2020 season, the play has been updated to reflect events that occurred after the original stage date, such as Trump’s defeat and the storming of Capitol Hill by people whipped into a frenzy. Director Emily McLean takes full advantage of this imagery and plays it to full effect with the clever staging. She uses levels and screen mediated content as means of signalling power struggles and control. Throughout the play we are privy to the fact that the Seven Commandments are changing. By not placing them up on the screen in the first place, the audience joins in the animal’s confusion as they feel their memories fail them – especially when the grim truth hits – they are being changed by the pigs in charge. The characters chosen to be portrayed are also a brilliant reflection of people’s place in the world and wider politics. Van Badham centralises women characters – in a book that doesn’t have many, she pushes the story through a woman’s lens. Obviously the main leaders are still male, but the use of Wilding as Squealer is key to the propping up of the leaders. It is in Clover (Gibbs) and Muriel (Van Reeken) the old goat that this subtle shift occurs – they discuss and relay the story of Boxer the big workhorse as women would do sitting around a kitchen table. This domestic realisation is significant as it highlights the people who are usually casualties of revolution. It is highly tempting to focus on the leaders or big players like history books do, but Badham takes the approach of social historians and champions the people – sorry animals – she is writing about.
Animal Farm is a sharp and clever piece of theatre. It bitingly attacks the screen mediated culture that prevails and serves as a lesson about power going unchecked. It is only when we stand up we can truly be free. The play is a unique blend of cmedy and intelligent political satire that retains its heart and integrity while depicting acts that contradict them. The final lines of the play, and the final edict painted on the wall that have echoed through the decades are rendered chilling in the stunning Black Swan show. All theatre is equal, but some shows are more equal than others – and believe me, this is a compliment to this memorable production.
Animal farm is playing at State Theatre Centre WA until 24th October 2021. Get your tickets HERE