George Orwell, adapted by Robert Icke
Children's Theatre Partnership in association with Birmingham Rep
At a time when Russia's relationship with 'the West' is at its lowest since the height of the Cold War, Children's Theatre Partnership is touring with Orwell's scathing satire on that country's political system at a time when it was an ally in the Second World War (although the European Parliament passed a resolution in 2019 blaming the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 for causing the war).
Orwell's short fable traces the rise of a Soviet form of communism through farmyard animals who rise up against a particularly cruel farmer, chase him away and start to run the farm by themselves. It begins with a declaration of ideals for the new world by the pig Old Major—standing in for Karl Marx—summarised by the slogan "four legs good, two legs bad" and concluding with the idealistic "all animals are equal".
The revolution comes after Major's death and the farm is run as a collective, except the pigs are clearly in charge, with leadership split between Trotskyite intellectual Snowball, who stays out of the fighting and the physical work but has elaborate plans for future prosperity, and Stalinist thug Napoleon, whose only future plans are to prepare for battle against his enemies, within and without. Napoleon eventually fabricates evidence against Snowball, has him chased off the farm and blames him for everything that subsequently goes wrong—accusing anyone who speaks against him of collaborating with the enemy.
Of course it ends with Old Major's ideals being corrupted into "four legs good, two legs better" and—another Orwell quote to rival 1984's 'Big Brother' and 'Room 101' in being famous even among those who don't know its origin—"all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."
The story is such a close allegory of the Soviet Union in the first half of the twentieth century that it can't be said to relate too closely to any current events, although there is perhaps scope for a sequel in which one of the dogs that Napoleon raises from puppies to silence his opponents ends up as president...
This production employs Toby Olié, original hind puppeteer of Joey in War Horse, as puppetry designer and director to create all of the non-human characters. There are more than thirty life-sized puppets—pigs, cows, horses, sheep, chickens and more—which took eight and a half months to build, operated by 14 black-clad but visible puppeteers. The voices, however, are provided through recordings of ten actors, but the programme doesn't specify who plays which character or even provide biographies for them, despite including such well-known names as Robert Glenister and Juliet Stevenson.
The puppets are remarkable, clearly distinguishing different characters even between animals of the same species by their design and movements as well as through their voices. Bunny Christie's design, with its corrugated iron curtain and many other suggestions of the farmyard, works well and is lit beautifully by Jon Clark. The music from sound designer Tom Gibbons also fits well to integrate into the action.
But while all the elements are there, somehow it just doesn't gel. There are some powerful scenes and some funny ones, but it is all very broken up and bitty. There are nearly as many stops for scene changes as there are stops for traffic lights within a mile of The Lowry—and that's a LOT—with one or two scenes that are shorter than the breaks between them, so the pace suffers and it never really gets going.
Visual sequences such as harvesting the hay go on for a long time without much variety, and scenes that should be exciting, such as the battles and chases, are full of clever touches, mixing the full-sized puppets with miniatures and using slow motion, but lacking in energy. Perhaps the Lyric Theatre is just too big for this to communicate to the back of the stalls where I was sitting.
There is much to admire in this production and several moments to savour and enjoy, and of course a lot for all the school parties to debate afterwards, but overall it felt like a long hour and a half that could have offered more.
Reviewer: David Chadderton