If you’re planning to go and see Animal Farm, make sure you’re mentally prepared. The play is shocking, depressing and… quite frankly, it’s brilliant.
The play is adapted from the famous novel by George Orwell, written in the 40s as a commentary on Russia’s descent into dictatorship under Stalin. Given the current situation in Russia, this feels all-too-prescient. The play revolves around Manor Farm, home to a selection of farmyard animals, including Old Major the pig, who dreams of overthrowing the evil farmer and running the farm himself.
When Old Major is butchered by the farmer, the other animals revolt in his name, taking the farm for themselves and renaming it ‘Animal Farm’. Napoleon the pig quickly takes charge, and the play takes place over 10 years, charting the evolution of Animal Farm, from the early, happy days of ‘freedom’ to the very pinnacle of Napoleon’s tyrannical rule.
With the majority of the characters being farmyard animals, this was always going to be a tricky play to stage. The play is told mostly through puppetry, with puppets created by Toby Olié, who was behind the puppets for the War Horse production. The sheer number of puppets in this production is breath-taking alone. Horses, cows, pigs, sheep, goats, chickens, pigeons, a goose, a cat – just when you think you’ve seen all of the puppets, another one pops up. Each puppet is so well made and so realistically acted that you can believe they are real animals. Such subtle movements – for example, Bluebell the dog panting – all add to the incredible illusion. The puppeteers (of which there are too many to mention, but you can find their names online) are all clearly expert at their craft.
Smaller puppets help to tell more dramatic moments of the play, such as a chase between Snowbell the pig and some German Shepherds, and the arrival of the farmer and his friends as they prepare to take back Animal Farm. These moments were extremely clever and expertly woven into the staging that they didn’t feel out of place at all – an interesting way to tell elements of the story that would usually be difficult to portray on stage.
The story, of course, becomes extremely harrowing as the play continues. Sharp, sudden blackouts signify deaths of major characters, and subtitles above the scenes give details on who has lost their life – their name, their species and their age. And there is a lot of death. The bodies begin to pile up so quickly that you barely get time to catch your breath. I never knew watching puppets meet their maker could be so upsetting.
The play ended very suddenly, leaving the audience in a stunned silence before bursting into applause. A short play (only 90 minutes, but then, the book is barely a novella), this is a great play that I would thoroughly recommend for anyone interested in seeing a show that feels very modern, as well as traditional. I truly believe puppetry will be leading the way in telling stories on the stage in the future, and Animal Farm will be regarded as one of the pioneers.
Animal Farm is currently touring the UK – more info here: https://animalfarmonstage.co.uk/
Tom Morley, April 2022