By Isabella Olsson
It’s a story anyone who has completed year nine English will know, and yet one that (until now) I had never seen performed onstage. Playwright and Director Saro Lusty-Cavallari has adapted George Orwell’s Animal Farm for the theatre, bringing the classic allegory of the rise of Stalinism to life. It’s a risky move, considering how renowned the source material is, but thankfully this adaptation is in very safe hands.
Lusty-Cavallari has done a remarkable job of translating the novel to dialogue, with a sharp, punchy and immensely clever script that balances its historical relevance while highlighting the timelessness of class struggle. The story is relocated from the English countryside to regional Australia, incorporating some welcome local references in the process – a backpacking fruit picker on a working holiday visa becomes a tragic casualty in a battle between the proletariat animals and bourgeoise humans, and central discussions between the farmers occur while at the local pub, barracking for the Blues. These updates to the original text serve to contemporise a nearly 80-year-old story for a modern audience, while also offering commentary on Australia’s own existing class, race and gender divides.
Impressively, given the dark content, it is actually an incredibly funny script, and the strong ensemble cast do a wonderful job with it. Lachlan Stevenson’s Trotsky-esque Snowball carries the first half of the play, rousing the other animals into rebellion against their tyrannical human master Jones and inspiring them with his teachings of Animalism. Zoe Crawford is hilariously and sickeningly patronising as propagandist Squealer, and Brendan Miles opens the show with a stirring monologue as the farm’s original revolutionary, Lenin-substitute Old Major (perhaps ironically, he also plays Jones in the latter half of the play). Ultimately, however, the show is an ensemble performance, and it is a credit to the entire cast that it is carried off with both humour and, where necessary, appropriate austerity.
Independent theatre necessarily has certain limitations, but Animal Farm uses simplicity to its advantage. Claudia Mirabello’s minimalistic costumes use a simple colour scheme to wonderful effect, cleverly distinguishing between workers and the ruling classes and giving each animal subtle personality – I promise there are no cow onesies here. Carmody Nicol’s set is also neatly understated: the stage of Newtown’s New Theatre is converted into a simple farmhouse with chalkboard walls. These walls become the canvas upon which Squealer writes (and later edits) the seven tenants of Animalism, the most singular of course being that “All animals are equal… but some are more equal than others.” It’s a smart staging move that hides in plain sight the gradual shift from a communist utopia to totalitarianism.
There are moments where the show may have benefitted from a little spectacle – there are plenty of bloody fights, rebellions and executions where some additional gore and effects wouldn’t have gone astray, but it is a testament to the production that the story hit home even without these added extras.
Lusty-Cavallari’s adaptation reminded me that at its core, Animal Farm is a wickedly clever satire, designed to both shock and humour its audience – this production does both in spades. A genuinely exciting work from an up and coming theatre maker, Animal Farm manages to do its source material justice while still remaining fresh, relevant and thoroughly entertaining.
Animal Farm is showing at New Theatre until November 7th.