This is my first – yes, first ever – encounter with Animal Farm.
If you’re wondering how that’s possible as both a writer and someone who grew up in the English schooling system, my answer is, simply: I don’t know. Don’t judge me for it. Of course, I have some vague notions of the book – something about capitalism, isn’t it? Power? Greed? Animals that can speak and grow crops, and they live in Russia? I don’t know. I purposefully maintain this lack of knowledge as it means I can go into this particular stage adaptation, which the programme tells me stars Britain’s best young performing talent from the 2020 National Youth Theatre REP Company, with an open mind.
I enter the NYT’s slickly refurbished building on Holloway Road, feeling hot and sticky and tired – there’s a heatwave, and this is my third show of the week. I take my seat, quietly crack open a comfortingly cold gin tinny, and the show erupts into wild, tempestuous life.
The animals of Manor Farm parade around the stage, their species groups distinguished by thoughtful details – pink waistcoats for the pigs, brown leatherwork and straps for the horses, white pompom and tutu for the sheep (costume design by Jasmine Swan). The most excellent costume of all, though, is saved for Farmer Jones (brought to sinister life by Connor Crawford in a brilliantly embodied performance). He looms behind the blood-splattered, abattoir-style plastic curtains which frame the stage (set design also by Jasmine Swan!), his silhouette huge and threatening. He storms the playing space, adorned with rubber trousers, wellies, and a comically oversized tartan blazer with gargantuan, slanted shoulders. He is rendered into some kind of daunting video game megaboss.
What follows is a true powerhouse of a production. Tatty Hennessy’s adaption of the political fable is witty, snappy, and scattered with small, humanising moments. And it’s important now to point out – the programme did not lie. This troupe of young performers is extraordinary; each ensemble member brims with energy and fire, which Ed Stambollouian’s nuanced, thorough direction does wonders to highlight. At any given moment, I can allow my eyes to roam away from the central action and simply watch the quiet emotional process of another character, bubbling with unspoken thought. It is this attention to detail that makes the world of this Animal Farm so rich and engaging.
The unfolding of the animals’ rebellion is peppered with sharp, explosive moments of choreography (Vicki Igbokwe). Coupled with music from John Elliot and sound design by Xana, these moments powerfully communicate the rising tension and desperation. By the second act, the fabric of the farm community is fraying at breakneck speed. The threads of betrayal are deftly interwoven until, as an audience member who doesn’t actually know where precisely this tale will end up, I no longer know who on this farm can be trusted.
Napoleon the pig’s slow but steady demise into full dictatorship is portrayed thrillingly by Jack Matthew; he achieves a madness behind his eyes that I find difficult to tear my own away from. He also executes an alarmingly realistic porcine squeal – in fact, this skill can be said of the entire cast. Blue the sheepdog’s bark (played with strength and sensitivity by Ishmel Bridgeman) transitions from a light, sweet yap to a low, brutal bark; an extra smart detail reflecting his sinking into corruption. I idly wonder whether a production like this might be the ultimate manifestation of an actor’s ‘animal studies’ module at drama school.
James Eden-Hutchinson is a joy as a pigeon (I think?) who flutters in and out, keeping us up to speed with the rapidly unravelling tale. Nkahnise Phiri as the hen who has her eggs viciously stolen from her is heart-breaking. Will Atiomo is touching and lovable as the committed, super-strong workhorse Boxer, which makes his demise all the more painful. In particular, the impact of this on Clover the mare (Adeola Yemitan) as she finally realises the extent of the corruption now plaguing the farm, is visceral, primal anguish. The fact that these performers are still in training is, I would argue, of little to no relevance because they could hold their own anywhere.
Of course, it’s impossible not to view the production through the lens of recent times. The corruption, the abuse of power, the inequality of death. In his essay Why I Write, Orwell said, ‘my starting point is always a sense of injustice’. It is this fierce sense of injustice and brutalisation of those most vulnerable which is so passionately instilled in NYT’s production. For a first trip to Animal Farm, I’m left feeling appropriately riled, radicalised, and rage-filled.
Animal Farm is on at NYT REP until Saturday 19th June 2021. More info and tickets here.