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Review: Animal Farm at the Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre

Updated: Oct 12, 2021

Review by Tatum Stafford

When Black Swan’s 2020 season was announced early last year, the striking promo photo and show description for ‘Animal Farm’ immediately intrigued me, and became a must-see on my theatre list for the year. Pandemic aside, I’m sure many would agree that ‘Animal Farm’s eventual premiere on Wednesday night was well worth the wait.

As director Emily McLean addresses in her director’s notes, as the show was postponed to 2021, an urgency to tell this story in relation to Trump’s horrific behaviour transitioned into a universality we all share: the fact that leaders across time and space have abused their position, and unfortunately, this pattern is likely to continue.

The powerfully stark set was the first thing to capture our attention. A seemingly endless row of animal fencing stretched from the front to the eventual back of the stage, and there were plastic fence panels plastered up the left and right sides of the space. A massive screen swallowed more than the top half of the stage, and formed a character of its own in this three-person performance. Kudos to set and costume designer Fiona Bruce for this striking space, and also for the distinct costume pieces that helped the audience distinguish between each actors’ multiple characters.

The play, written by Van Badham, is a modern adaptation of George Orwell’s satirical 1944 novella of the same name. The book tells the story of a group of farm animals who rebel against their human farmer and hope to create a society where all animals are equal, happy and free. The play follows this theme throughout, but imposes a 2021 lens and incorporates the influence of Fox News, the bad behaviours of a few infamous political leaders, and plenty of Trump-isms (the familiar slogan “Make Animal Farm Great” was peppered throughout the piece, much to the audience’s delight).

The show’s three actors produce tour-de-force performances in their many contrasting roles. Each actor played a minimum of 16 roles, both on and off screen (the video broadcast provided a stream of different characters or reprisals of on-stage characters), and each was done with commendable commitment and clear character choices.

Andrea Gibbs’ ‘Snowball’ pig was an early standout, and Gibbs also shone in her portrayal of ex-patriarch ‘Old Major’ and a few other farm animals. Megan Wilding provided plenty of comic relief in her hilarious opening monologue, and in her snobbish portrayal of press secretary ‘Squealer’. Alison Van Reeken also provided an excellent array of characters, notably in her hippie-esque pony ‘Mollie’ who flees the farm, and her authoritarian ‘Napoleon’; delivering farcical dialogue with aplomb.

As alluded, it’s unfortunate that the strong themes of this play will likely ring true for some time to come. However, it feels like incredibly important viewing for anyone with any semblance of current political news, as it can sometimes prove beneficial to take a step back and examine ourselves through a drastically different lens (perhaps even an animal’s).

Image Credit: Daniel Grant


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