Animal Farm – Theater Royal, Norwich
Screenwriter: Georges Orwell
Adapter: Robert Icke
Director: Robert Icke
Orwell’s short story, an allegorical tale of Stalinism in the form of the animals of Manor Farm who rise in a revolution to drive out humans and fight for a home in which all animals are equal, came to life on stage thanks to Toby Olie’s puppet.
Robert Icke’s take on the classic, though co-produced by the Children’s Theater Partnership, is certainly not a toned down version of the children’s book. This tale stays true to the original with all the brutality and horror that serves as a warning against communism and comes to life on stage here. There are necks broken, sheep executed, and many other poignant and dark moments in this tale.
The stars of this show are questionable; is it the incredibly detailed life-size puppets, or is it the puppeteers? Sticking with the final lines of the novella, as the audience watches from puppet to man and man to puppet, it’s nearly impossible to tell which is which. The skill of these puppeteers is such that within minutes of watching the show, they almost become one with the creatures. Boxer the Workhorse’s imposing entrance showcases the skill of the puppeteers on a grand scale, but it’s actually in the smaller creatures that their ability is truly seen. In particular, the chickens and the cat receive real personalities and intentions not through their spoken lines, but through their mannerisms and movements.
The animal voices are pre-recorded, which creates an impressive feat of synchronization for the puppeteers, but leaves the show feeling like something is missing. The actors read their lines to bring their characters to life, but something about that process makes it feel like you’re just hearing each character’s lines read aloud, not them interacting with each other and bringing an energy at the Display. This becomes clearer when the farm is overrun by several humans and the scene comes alive with movement, tension and dynamism in a way otherwise absent.
The staging itself mirrors this lightened up narrative, with metal walls, torches and not much else, the puppets themselves are really able to take center stage and focus the narrative on their experiences and their feelings. Considering the impressive complexity of the puppets and the skill of those who wield them, it’s a choice that serves the piece well. Adding to this minimalist ensemble is the ominous meter above the stage, marking the demise of each animal and its cause with a chiming bell serving as a constant reminder of the growing death toll.
This minimalist take on Animal Farm comes with its shorter narrative and bare walls, which sometimes makes the show look rather anemic, allows for the focus to be on the puppets themselves as a means of creating the allegorical warning. The purpose of Animal Farm, written as a warning in 1944, is as poignant today as it was when it was first conceived, making it a piece not only worth watching for. the immersive world of puppets and the skills of their creators, but a play that we should all see as a reminder of the importance of its message.
Until: March 12, 2022