WHEN you have a stage full of brilliantly created life-sized puppets, expertly manoeuvred and voiced, the storyline within the play being presented can undermined, at times almost forgotten. In the case of Robert Icke’s intense adaptation of George Orwell’s 1945 novella there was never a chance that the story would slip into the background.
Brutally realistic as Toby Olie and Daisy Beatie’s puppets are, they were there to, and did, serve as cyphers for the real-life characters satirised by Orwell. While most of the world was still hailing Joseph Stalin as a great wartime leader of the democratic world, Orwell, a lifelong democratic socialist, had seen past Stalin’s benign “Uncle Joe” mask, recognising the ruthless brutality of his rise to power as supreme dictator of the large Russian empire.
The begining’s of the Russian revolution, as the Animals take over the running of their farm from the incompetent, drunken farmer who owns it, and their successful repelling of his first attempt, with support from neighbours, to regain control, reflects those early revolutionary years as if in a mirror.
There are similar historic references in the early internal battle for power, after the death of their first wise mentor, Old Major [Lenin]. Just as the Bolshevik party, although not the greatest in number, usurped the leadership of the 1917 revolution, so the Pigs take control of Animal Farm.
In no time you forget that actors are manipulating and giving voice to the puppets, as democracy is crushed under the ruthless regime headed by the ever more dictatorial Napoleon Pig [Stalin], with his sycophantic aide, Squealer [Molotov] spreading half-truths and lies – shades here of Hitler’s head of propaganda Joseph Goebbels – they quickly rid themselves of the one honest voice amongst the pigs, Snowball [Leon Trotsky]. As their power becomes absolute, they also dispense with any dissenting voices within the community – shades of Stalin’s ethnic cleansing – as many being executed as are lost in the second battle to retain the farm against attack by the former owner and friends.
All of this is presented with harrowing reality through this wonderful array of puppets, the loyal, hardworking cart horse Boxer, prepared to work himself to death for a cause , long since abandoned by the rulers, that he still believes in, the ever-faithful Clover, believing to her end that their ideals will finally come to fruition. Your heart goes out to this pair and the rest of the outstanding, well-presented farm animals, sheep, goats, geese, hens, dogs, cats, and birds all dominated by a ruling clan completely corrupted by power.
The sad thing is that Orwell’s message, aimed at a specific regime 77 years ago, can draw parallels with the present-day Russian leaders and their dealings with dissectors within their own ranks, neighbouring states, and strict control of news presentation.
Squealer’s chilling words which close the play, cleverly corrupting one of the revolutionary animals first declarations that all animals are equal, by adding seven frightening words, but some are more equal than others, and listening to the latest news from the Ukraine, you have the feeling that although we may have learnt little from George Orwell’s warnings, this production is determined to put a bright spotlight on the problems caused by dictators.