Though Tree Folk theatre company was inspired by Russian storytelling (its first production was Tsarevich and the Wolf) their production of Animal Farm barely made me think of the novel’s intended referent Stalinist Russia and its people. Maybe it was the pig masks but my mind dwelled on political figures closer to home. With a few decisions that need reexamining, this is a strong production with great storytelling from the ensemble, elucidating moments of profound insight on the source material.
Nelson Bond adaptation of Orwell’s novel, though uncut and slightly unwieldy, suits the mask and puppet work that director William Vercelli employs. Each of the key animals is represented by a stylistic head, primitive and muddy in the case of the horses Boxer and Clover, Mollie the bourgeois pony, Benjamin the donkey and Muriel the goat. The pigs are more differentiated, each grotesque in its own fashion, each twisted in a kind of smirk or grimace. Each character is held at a slightly different height, with Squealer, operated by Mitch Howell craning to look up at his ‘comrades’ to deliver his false statistics. These heights create naturally pleasing stage pictures as the actors pass narration and dialogue between them as their character is involved in the action.
These core masks are supplemented by puppets – with Old Major cleverly rendered with a bucket, some sticks and pink sheets, and a gigantic raven puppet for Moses’ preaching about the heavenly Sugar Candy Mountain. The dramatic language is flexible enough to incorporate other animals. The sheep that chant “Four legs good, two legs bad” are amusingly presented as a tight clump of actors, wide-eyed in confusion. Chickens and other small creatures are summoned from a clutch of coloured cloth – which with a little more deft precision will add the kind of magic that puppetry is loved for.
By contrast, the use of buffon-like masks to present Farmer Jones and other humans robs the final moment of unmasking of some of its power, as all the actors in the farmhouse are seen without masks, and so the humans and pigs are finally indistinguishable to the ‘lower animals’ and the audience. There are also more physical moments to be found in the text – to sit along highlights like the Battle of the Barn and Boxer’s farewell in the knacker’s van.
Animal Farm is about lies. It’s about swallowing lies whole. It’s about short memories, weaponised mimetic phrases and barely disguised spin. And the real highlight of this production is the characterisation of each animal, the liars and the lied-to.
Jerome Millington-Johnson’s softly spoken, upright Boxer puts one word and one foot carefully in front of the other. Caitlin McMillan is terrifying as Napoleon’s trained dog, panting darkly in a black hoody, a constant presence in the second half of the play. Howell’s grunts and snuffles as his Squealer delivers Napoleon’s policies are brilliantly unsettling and familiar – Squealer is no great rhetorician, and he doesn’t need to be. He can lie to the face of the people without grace or skill because there is no credible counter-narrative to the pig’s version of events, and no political opposition.
The only undifferentiated character throughout was Napoleon, voiced by Tom Manning, who also plays the gruff, considered Old Major. Manning’s Napoleon is not prideful, or short-tempered or even disinterested. His lines are played straight down the line. It’s only when the pigs walk on two legs at the end of Animal Farm, when Napoleon emerges wearing Farmer Jones’ tweed that it makes perfect sense. The upper-class ease with which the jacketed Napoleon saunters, whip in hand, reminded me of nothing so much as the PM in his natural habitat, Napoleon’s seamless appropriation of Boxer’s words “I will work harder” having worked him to death echoes David Cameron calling “You ain’t no Muslim, bruv” brilliant, while suggesting Muslim women with limited English encourage radicalisation. Tree Folk’s Animal Farm is about political control as much as it is about any single political regime – it feels highly contemporary without any conscious updating.