Soulpepper’s Animal Farm: ‘this production has been designed to force you to think’

Scott Sneddon

Scott Sneddon

Scott Sneddon is Senior Editor on SesayArts Magazine where he is also a critic and contributor.

Animal Farm Ensemble, photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Adapting Animal Farm for adult theatregoers has always struck me as a bit of an odd idea. George Orwell’s anthropomorphic 1945 satire recounts how the domestic animals on a farm overthrow their tyrannical human masters, only to replace them with an equally despotic – if smoother and politically savvier – overclass of pigs. (Of course, Orwell was clear that the real subject of his tale was the Russian Revolution and the failures of the Stalinist aftermath.)

When I told my daughter (who is in grade twelve) that my wife and I were heading to Soulpepper last Saturday to see Anthony MacMahon’s not-for-small-children stage version, she did a double-take, and asked, “The actors are dressed up as animals?” Normally, news about the household adults’ evening itinerary would garner little more than a grunt, so I found her response helpful. Animal Farm is a work that many contemporary Canadian adults (I want to say the majority) were exposed to in middle or high school, as I was. And more than 25 years past my high school days, Animal Farm is still – incredibly – being studied by massive numbers of Canadian students between grades 7 and 10, such as my daughter. There are many reasons for this:

  1. As a novella, it is not dauntingly long . . . yet not too short to have substance
  2. It works as both a deceptively simple story about animals, and as a deeper tale of human imperfection, whose levels of meaning can be readily plumbed through discussion
  3. Animal Farm is like a Nutri-bullet-combined protein shake packed chock full of literary devices. In one compact package, a teacher can teach metaphor, analogy, satire, personification, symbolism, irony and many more devices.  

Rick Roberts, Sarah Wilson and Miriam Fernandes, photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

So any adaptation of Animal Farm has a massive built-in audience who, whether they liked or loathed their educational encounter with the novella, will have at least idle curiosity about the production. So for readers like my daughter, yes, the actors are dressed as animals. But where it is possible for naive or young readers to read the original novella for its plot – as a simple story about animals – it is abundantly clear that director Ravi Jain does not want us ever to forget that these are human actors playing the farm animals. The costumes and makeup are striking and accompanied by stylized animal movements (I particularly liked the undulating head and body movements of the chickens) – but they are deliberately, emphatically not realistic. In fact, when the performance opens, the actors come on stage and introduce themselves before putting on their masks and doing a final sound-check. During that sound-check, their voices are suddenly transformed by a synthetic, echo-y effect that is difficult to describe, and which gives the whole production a further otherworldly effect.  All of this – plus the clever set, which the animal actors bodily manipulate to accomplish scene changes throughout the play – situate us. We are a very long way from any ‘real world’ of verisimilitude. And when the lights go down and the production itself begins, we will not be allowed to think about what we’re seeing in an immersive or unself-conscious way.

In fact, the audience is held apart from this play: forced into an odd-feeling, more critical stance than is typical. The first act is truer than the second to Orwell’s original – and as theatrical spectacle, it suffers for it. The action is largely static, featuring talky set pieces such as Jennifer Villaverde’s Old Major recounting his dream (which is the catalyst for the animals’ revolution), or Rick Roberts’ Napoleon and Sarah Wilson’s Snowball debating various courses of action while espousing divergent politics. The action stutters to brief life with the battle sequences, which benefit from comic zest thanks to irreverently creative (but once again distancing) staging. But on balance, for much of this act, the action stops dead while the animals sit or stand on stage and listen to someone else speak. Rick Roberts as Napoleon is masterful as the archetypally smug, half-logical and wholly self-serving modern politician. And Sarah Wilson’s Snowball is his earnest and equally skewered opposite number: an ultra-extreme version of the type of politician we find at Toronto City Council fruitlessly advocating for consultation and fact-based decision-making.

Jennifer Villaverde, Raquel Duffy, Michaela Washburn, and Leah Cherniak, photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

If the first act feels static, the second more than makes up for it with manic action that takes rapid liftoff from the runway of Orwell’s original text. The topical satire that slily peeked out in the first act explodes in a flurry of contemporary references. Most notable is the “Boccupy” movement (as in ‘bok, bok’ – the sound a chicken makes), the protest of Napoleon’s economic model (which benefits only the pigs) by the chickens, who are led by Raquel Duffy’s delightfully ditzy but increasingly aware and astute Mercy. There are thinly veiled (ok not really veiled at all) allusions to immigration, to health care, to the media, to technology, even to Trump’s wall. And looming especially large at the end is the spectre of the mass automation that will make the work of so many in our society obsolete.  

Like a Howitzer, Act Two sprays its satire in indiscriminate bursts with a zany sketch-comedy, ad-lib feel. A running gag about Les Misérables  – an anthemic musical about a failed revolution – provides chuckles and, upon reflection, a grim counterpoint. The breakneck satire accelerates until it effectively runs off a cliff, when we are served a version of Orwell’s final scene, in which the humans and pigs are indistinguishable. By this point, we have left Orwell’s original so far behind that this return seems perfunctory and reductive. One final, plaintive cry from Guillermo Verdecchia’s soulful point-of-view character Benjamin . . .then the house lights signal the end of the play, catching the blinking audience by surprise.

There is a considerable amount to like in Soulpepper’s Animal Farm. But you need to accept that you will do that liking from a forced, critical and self-aware distance. Though you will laugh, this will not be an easy, comfortable evening at the theatre. From before the start to after its finish, this production has been designed to force you to think: first about Orwell’s core ideas and the intractable problem of how to achieve equity through government; and second, about how wildly complicated these core ideas have been by technological advancement in the 80 years since Orwell wrote Animal Farm.

Not bad for actors dressed up as animals . . .

Animal Farm Ensemble, photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

News You Can Use

What: Animal Farm by George Orwell, adapted for the stage by Anthony MacMahon; Directed by Ravi Jain; Featuring Leah Cherniak (Bessie/Nugget),
Oliver Dennis (Boxer/Human), Raquel Duffy
(Mercy), Miriam Fernandes
(Squealer), Rick Roberts
(Napoleon), Paolo Santalucia
(Pinkie/Merv/Dog/Human), Sugith Varughese (Trotter/Curly/Dog), Guillermo Verdecchia (Benjamin), Jennifer Villaverde (Old Major/Poophead)
Michaela Washburn (Korma/Doctor/Molly/Doug), Sarah Wilson (Snowball/Sheila/Human)

Who: Audiences 14 years of age and up

When: On stage until April 7, 2018 (evening and matinee performances); running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes (including one 20-minute intermission)

Where: Young Centre for the Performing Arts50 Tank House Lane, Distillery Historic District, Toronto, ON M5A 3C4

Info and Tickets: Soulpepper.ca and 416.866.8666

© 2018 Scott Sneddon, Sesaya

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