9 March 2013

Believing Squealer


Animal Farm is a fable and storybookish with animals as characters, but it’s also allegorical with parallels to Russian communism and Stalin. It’s also a common school text. I remember some scenes from my reading many years ago, not least the image of the strong and dedicated horse Boxer as he’s taken away to the knackery. It’s obviously still on the curriculum because there was a large cohort of teenagers, not least the Canberra Grammar girls sitting in front of us. For all these reasons, the Q was well stocked with an audience who knew and understood the story and intent. It’s been dramatised by three of the cast of five and won various awards for the shake & stir drama company in the past and is now on tour from Queensland including a 3 mid-week day stay in Queanbeyan.

I enjoyed it but it wasn’t the emotionally charged experience that was West Side Story a few week back in this theatre. The story is tragic and the evil of totalitarianism is palpable, but I found it far more an intellectual than an emotional experience. That’s probably apt. Emotions can be dangerous things and their abuse is obvious in this tale. There’s also a good deal of narration in this dramatisation and maybe it’s inevitable to tell the story. The small cast plays numerous roles. Various animals are minimally signified by minor props (ears, manes, tails) or just by posture and the actors merge and out of the role of narrator. The story is nicely developed as the seven commandments change over time and finally merge and invert as “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others". The final scene of pigs on two legs negotiating with humans was a disheartening resolution but it fits this essentially tragic view. I especially admired the presentation of the horses and dogs. Boxer’s and Molly/Clover’s gaits were endearing and wonderfully believable and the dogs were truly fearsome. Napoleon and Snowball are essential to the story but I have to give it to Squealer as the consummate wily political hack who manipulates with rhetoric and deceit and rewritten history. The animals have some awareness but it’s the old donkey, Benjamin, who can read and has some understanding of what’s going on, although I imagine he would benefit from the greater depth possible in the book. The cast appear in dank and dirty minimalist clothing and daubed with mud. From the mud, to the mud, ever subject to elites and abuse. It’s a discouraging view of the world but one that’s perfectly at home in the mid-20th century of world wars and show trials and genocide.

We drove home afterwards discussing the history and its implications: of the Russian revolution through to Stalin and whether totalitarianism is the inevitable result of Marxism or perhaps of any ideology. Certainly there are totalitarianisms of the right, as well, and Orwell, himself, was of the left although often claimed by right. He’s an honest and relevant writer and wonderfully easy to read and openly opinionated (although I don’t share his method for a perfect cup of tea). And this is a fable, if black, but also a historical allegory that’s a little out of time but not without relevance and certainly worth a revisit. shake & stir theatre company featured actors Ross Balbuziente, Nelle Lee, Nick Skubij, Tim Dashwood and Bryan Probets directed by Michael Fulcher. Ross, Nelle and Nick created this theatrical interpretation from George Orwell’s original novel.

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