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Review: Animal Farm at Liverpool Everyman ****

February 14, 2020

“Power,” Lord Alton wrote in 1887, “tends to corrupt. And absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Well, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Fifty years on, that sentiment was echoed by George Orwell in his stark allegorical tale that places the protagonists of the Russian Revolution and the subsequent brutal Stalinist regime in a less-than-bucolic farmyard setting.

And looking around at the world in 2020, it seems both Alton’s words and Orwell’s fable remain sadly resonant.

It’s certainly the point YEP is making in this committed performance of Laurence Wilson’s adaptation of Orwell’s novella, the action unfolding among the straw and sawdust of LIPA designer team Abi Jones and Chloe Wyn’s barn setting.

The animals are revolting (but some, it turns out, are more revolting than others!) against the vicious alcoholic Farmer Jones, urged on by the commanding oration of Old Major the boar who paints a vivid picture of a farmyard utopia of peace, love, understanding and equality.

What starts with such noble intentions slowly and stealthily becomes corrupted as the farm’s cunning pig population (led by Heidi Henders’ idealistic revolutionary Snowball and Will Flush’s ambitious usurper Napoleon) twist and turn the revolution’s core tenets – the Seven Commandments – to suit themselves.

And rather like a lobster bathing in incrementally warmer water, the beasts of the barn find themselves eased slowly into an oppressed reality that is a long way from Animal Farm’s dreamt of promised land.

Proceedings open with a Good Morning Good Morning cacophony of farmyard sounds as horse, hen, cow, donkey, sheep, cat and dog cascade on to the stage.

The animals of Animal Farm. Top: The ruling pigs. Photos by Brian Roberts

 

The animals are realised predominately through movement and naïve open-structured masks; the ears have it, while the pigs sport snouts and innocuous children’s television-style pink dungarees. Truly wolves in…pigs’ clothing.

Repetition of Old Major’s rallying call, Beasts of England, proves a narrative weathervane; at first delivered in ferocious fashion - an animal Haka, but increasingly muted as the evening progresses.

YEP’s cast of young actors infuse the animals with all too recognisable human traits and failings, and it’s testament to their investment in the storytelling that they avoid turning the pigs in to caricature baddies.

Chloe Nall-Smith brings particular conviction to the utterings of Squealer the Belial-tongued propaganda porker, a curly-tailed Molotov pedalling a brand of shameless revisionism, while all three ruling hogs achieve an at times chilling detachment that makes the purging and paranoia all the more believable.

On the farmyard side, Paul King is a calm fulcrum as poor old slow but loyal cart horse Boxer, whose unflagging dedication to the new Eden and unquestioningly loyalty its leadership is cruelly betrayed.

Seventy-five years after its publication, Animal Farm remains a particularly potent warning against autocracy.

And the YEP team succeeds in harnessing much of the work’s narrative power to present a production that both entertains and also raises important, if uncomfortable, questions….along with the blood pressure of its audience.

Yes, four legs good, but 30 legs definitely better.

 

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