Thursday, April 29, 2010
George Orwell's 'Animal Farm': Not 'Just for Laughs'
George Orwell’s two seminal works of fiction, Animal Farm and 1984, were written in a tumultuous time. Animal Farm, published in 1945, was written as a Stalinist era dystopian allegory which made Orwell famous in the post-war world. 1984, published in 1949, another dystopian work of fiction, documented totalitarianism and its methods of controlling people—perpetual war, government surveillance and mind control.
Today, these two works of Orwell are more relevant than they ever were. If you take the Chomskyian view, not much has changed—only the Stalinist regime has changed to late capitalism, where the rule of the pigs has transmogrified into the rule of the corporate oligarchs—the war on terror is perpetual, technology is enabling the government to track their citizens with ever greater ease and corporate media plays as the mind controlling arm of the rulers. Democratic socialism (that Orwell subscribed to) is dead.
At such a time, when W!ld Rice chose to stage Animal Farm (adapted by Ian Wooldridge) to kick off its 10th anniversary celebrations, the expectations ran high. Would it echo the siege of our times? Would it mirror the globalised utopia that we live in today—trapped in our consumerism and relative powerlessness?
The good news is that the production lives up to the expectations. The adaptation has been well localized and it leaves the audience in no doubt that the play speaks to them about their own everyday reality (work hard, pay the rent-seekers, and work harder—a slippery slope of never making enough, never having enough). To establish this connection, there are hints galore and you don’t have to be too discerning to spot them.
The writer (Orwell and Wooldridge) and director (Ivan Heng) make us take ample note of the fact that tyranny is the fate of human beings. No matter how many times they overthrow a tyrant, there will always be a new tyrant who will rise from their ranks. Revolutions spring in our breasts the hope for a new future and every time, after the war has been won, blood has been shed, sacrifices have been made, this optimism is crushed by a new tyrant, rising like a phoenix in a new avatar, necessitating another revolution. There is no escape from this human fate—the cycle of revolution and tyranny.
There is also a comment on the role of organized religion (which is ironically so Marxist): Moses the Raven keeps referring to the Sugarcandy Mountain. I wish this oblique reference to a life of perpetual happiness in the heaven could have been made more direct and contemporary. Like in the scene where Squealer distributes the apples among the sheep (audience) and calls them organic produce. That is contemporization and it is wholesome.
The plot, as it were, is faithful to the book and the characters are selfsame—Old Major, Napoleon, Snowball, Squealer and so on. The actors have played their part so convincingly that you forget they are playing animals and that they are talking about things that are familiar to your bone. Pam Oei as Squealer gets the most laughs but then at times the play falls in the danger of skidding into the realm of comedy (as in a skit—in satire, we must remember, the desire for social change remains underlined). Lim Yu-Beng as the sinister Napoleon is impressive. Gani Abdul Karim as Boxer is believable but it is Benjamin (sorry, missed the actor’s name but the guy who plays the donkey) who takes the cake for me.
The static set of the Manor Farm is a bit simple, even boring. However, the music by the man in white Jenson Koh nicely complements it. In a particular scene, I like it when he walks on to the stage and creates a storm with his drum sticks. Bravo! I also like the ‘Who let the dogs out’ part—it gives the play a cool contemporary feel, sutures it to our present times (why did I think of Abu Gharaib when that song played on?).
As David Hare has said recently, in Stalinist Russia, the most powerful protest you could make was to stage Hamlet. In our globalised land, it could well be George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
Full marks to the cast and crew of Animal Farm for this powerful and timely production. It’s a must see for anyone who has a taste for reality.
When: 21 APRIL – 08 MAY 2010
Where: DRAMA CENTRE THEATRE, SINGAPORE