Napier Repertory Players Youth Production 8 August 2018, Little Theatre, Napier By Bridget Freeman, with Lief, Emil and Lily (aged 10-13)
Mikel O’Connell, just 19 years old, has done a brilliant job of directing this fine group of seven young actors (aged 13-18) in an innovative, debut-production of a classic literary work. George Orwell’s allegorical novella Animal Farm, written during World War II when Stalin’s USSR was a British ally, is enacted here as a meditation on the topical, social issue of equality (and, you could argue, animal welfare), incorporating physical theatre, effective minimalist design, and apt Brechtian techniques.
In the first half I am captivated by the cast’s clean, assured performance, the way form complements content, the little twists on words – “The only good human is a dead one” – as this story of an animal rebellion on a farm unfolds, true to its original text but in a fresh, dynamic way.
In the interval I enlist the help of my children to write this review – as such, it’s theirs as much as mine.
Lief (13) summarises the methodology: “This is an ensemble piece – and the way the actors are connecting, the movement, they work really well together. I like that they can tell a story without any props or any costumes, and it’s still pretty easy to follow, even when they’re switching characters. They’ve used stage combat too – it came across as real, so that was cool. I reckon a few of these kids go to NYDS. At times it was a bit loud – the scream, for example, it was quite affronting. But I think that was to a good effect. It was supposed to shock us. With the audience being seated around the stage, the actors have to move around and speak to everyone; everyone gets to see the play from different angles.”
We note that the whole theatre is a bit like a barn, and with the stage level to the floor, us seated around in the dimlit edges, we’re all in the barn, animals and humans, actors and audience, together. Right from the start we’re complicit.
The second half begins ominously, running us through the gamut of tyranny as the power balance shifts on Animal Farm from imperfect democratic collective to an all-powerful elite. It’s hard for the ensemble to maintain their impeccable discipline without the very qualities that have conveyed the story so cleverly til now seeming somewhat relentless. We’re starting to flag, to feel oh so tired as the whole world onstage is turned upside down, and utopia degenerates into “the same set of problems as before: hunger, hardship and hard work.”
It’s not for lack of imaginative theatrics or execution on the part of the Players, but the inexorable drive of George Orwell’s parable to its bitter, subversive conclusion.
Despite the staged twist at the end, which reflects us back unto ourselves, the play turned back into the wider social context in which it plays, leaving us grist for the mill on a car-ride back to Hastings, we feel in the immediate aftermath somewhat deflated, sad – all that effort, all that hope and in the end nothing changes….
In the car, however, there’s uplift as the conversation turns political. We discuss the behaviour of the pigs who ascend to power, the injustices, fear-mongering, brainwashing; the way rules are rewritten to favour rulers and how this reflects what is happening in the world at large.
Emil (12): “They’re greedy, it’s like with the rich people buying up all the houses so that they can make heaps of money and then the houses cost too much and people have nowhere to live.” He’s suspicious – what laws is our new government rewriting, exactly, whose interests do they serve?
Lily (10) is disturbed above all by the moment of pathos in the play, when loyal, hardworking Boxer collapses and is taken off by the ruthless pigs to the knackers. “I hate how he works so hard, all his life, and then when he dies, they don’t care. It’s so mean.”
On discussing the banquet, the way the pigs by the end no longer hide their ill-won privilege, Lief comments: “I think that’s where they make a mistake, when those in power make things so hard and unfair for everyone else. When you push people too hard and treat them like they’re not worth anything, in the end, they’re going to rebel.”
By the time we arrive home, we’ve drummed up our own small resistance – we’re determined not to believe the propaganda, and we’re definitely not going to let the pig-men take over.
As Mikel O’Connell writes in his director’s note, “Great art creates great debates.” Animal Farm certainly provoked some great conversation last night and reverberating questions, so thank you Napier Repertory Players for your wonderful youth production.
Animal Farm is on at Napier’s Little Theatre, 10-17 August.