George Orwell’s seminal 1945 novel Animal Farm is not the easiest text to dramatise – it’s crammed with metaphors, ideologies and satire that only Orwell himself could write. In any good page-to-stage adaptation, the end result has to better than sitting down to read the book yourself; you should be able to draw on imagery and themes that become apparent through live performance. Sadly, Tree Folk Theatre’s production at The Courtyard Theatre doesn’t really go anywhere to achieve this, though it does apply a unique visual style to counter its weaknesses in storytelling.
The plot remains exactly the same: the disgusting Mr. Jones (Jordan Turner) is evicted from his farm by his animals, leaving them to rule the roost under the guise of the pigs, Snowball (William Vercelli, who also directs) and Napoleon (Tom Manning). All appears to run smoothly until Napoleon seizes the farm for himself and drafts the animals unknowingly into his own dictatorship, where the line between animal and man becomes blurred. The story will remain one of England’s greatest literary outputs of the twentieth century, and part of this production’s success is that the source material is as good as it is.
What isn’t so great is that Nelson Bond’s adaptation is as blatant as it gets. The text seems to be copied out word for word, splitting narration and dialogue between characters, and it appears no work has gone into making the novel work for the stage at all. There’s that age old saying ‘show, don’t tell.’ Well here we’re given both as Vercelli’s visuals and Bond’s narration clash, meaning there’s an awful lot of explanation going on. The moment where Boxer (a very likeable Jerome Millington-Johnson), the horse that never gives up finally falls, should be nuanced and tragic. Instead we are narrated that “Boxer falls,” we see Boxer literally fall, and then we hear whispered choruses of “Boxer’s fallen!” Oh really? I hadn’t noticed. If there’s one thing the original Animal Farm is known for, it’s subtlety.
Vercelli’s use of puppetry is a good one, as it adds something to this show that we wouldn’t previously get. I really like the quality of the craftsmanship in these puppets – they have an eerie quality to them, not quite animal-like, with dark circles where eyes should be. It leads to some fairly sinister tableaus, and clearly some imagination has gone into the making of them. The standout has to be the crow, Moses, who looms above the audience, all black wings and silver beak. It has an almost gothic feel to it and looks cracking under the dim lighting.
Unfortunately, the puppetry doesn’t really follow through into the performances, unless your name is Mitch Howell and then you’re excellent. His Squealer is exactly right: conniving, despicable and dirty. Howell’s physicality goes a long way to showing us that this creature is real. Across the board, the performances are fine, but most actors have a tendency to rush and consequently stumble over their lines. Diction isn’t wonderful, and this is compounded when you take into account the voices they are adding to their characters. The cast just lack a commitment to their roles. Their physical natures are too lifelike, and if we’re telling a story about animals becoming human, then we need to see the animals outside of the puppets.
Orwell’s novel is littered with so many iconic moments, it makes it very difficult for a director to achieve them visually whilst maintaining the right emotional pathos to each scene. Some are done very well – Snowball’s expulsion from the farm is thrilling and tense (not least helped by Caitlin McMillan’s whirlwind dog), and when we finally see the pigs walking on two feet it is a really creepy image. It strikes the right balance between looking impressive and grotesque at the same time. Elsewhere, gurning ruins the drama in some scenes. When Boxer is finally carted off, in what is surely the novel’s most heartbreaking scene, it is completely ruined by the performances of the van drivers who seem to playing it for laughs. Vercelli also needs to let a scene breathe – that deafening final moment where breeds are finally crossed is perhaps held on for a second before we fade to black.
In many ways you’re playing with fire if you tackle Orwell – this felt too blasé at times, too throwaway to matter. Here, audiences weren’t given the credit they deserved, and any deeper meaning to the text was sacrificed for over-explanation. If you haven’t read the novel yet, this shouldn’t be your first encounter with Animal Farm, it is too dumbed down. The puppets are worth a look though.
Animal Farm is playing The Courtyard Theatre until Sunday 13 March 2016. For more information visit www.thecourtyard.org.uk