You don’t know how good it feels, gentle reader, simply to be able to type the words “Review – “ followed by the name of a show again after fourteen months away from a theatre. The last play I saw last year was in the Royal Theatre, and the first play this year is in the very same space – seems almost poetic.
Before talking about this new production of Animal Farm, a few words about how the Royal and Derngate are welcoming us back safely in this new COVID world of ours. Timed entry to the theatre, one-way systems, mask on whenever you’re inside (unless you’re eating or drinking – we didn’t), the shortest of intervals – just enough time to nip to the loo which was well marshalled for extra safety, bars closed (you can pre-order drinks), no programmes on sale (there’s a downloadable programme on the theatre website) additional ventilation and the all-important social distancing.
I confess, when I first saw what seats were available for this performance – and bearing in mind the seats are sold within pre-determined bubble groupings – we thought we’d opt for super safety and actually bought a bubble of three seats when there are only two of us. Selfish perhaps, but for us safety measures means baby steps at first, and it just felt safer to have an additional empty space around us. All in all the theatre did a great job in making it a safe and secure occasion. Nevertheless, I’d be lying if I said I was completely relaxed. It’s hard to unlearn the lessons of fourteen months.
I had thought hard in advance whether social distancing would affect the atmosphere for the show. And, fascinatingly, it doesn’t. You’re not so remote that you don’t have other audience members in your peripheral vision, and of course you hear their laughter, and any oohs and ahhs. So if you thought that social distancing would take the heart out of a play – it really doesn’t.
But, as someone significant once said, The Play’s The Thing. Animal Farm is, of course, George Orwell’s allegory of the rise and further rise of Soviet communism told by the metaphor of animals who take over the running of their own farm and chase their drunken, cruel and wasteful farm-owner away. It’s a brilliant piece of writing, full of pathos, tragedy, wit, humour and the inevitability of disastrous failure. So how does this new adaptation by Tatty Hennessy, directed by Ed Stambollouian, bring the pages of this 1945 novel alive onto the stage, to be performed by members of the National Youth Theatre, under its new arrangement with the Royal and Derngate?
Answer – incredibly well. As the play progressed, the parallels with life today in the UK become horrifyingly clear. Squealer, the master of propaganda, is the ultimate spin doctor who makes you disbelieve the truth even when you have seen it for yourself. Clover is the kindly follower who wants to believe in the cause and is sadly gullible to every lie that the state reiterates. Boxer is the (literal) workhorse who works every hour of the day to the detriment of his own health – and then when he falls ill is sent straight to the knacker’s yard. Snowball is the scapegoat on whom the state can heap all the blame for their own deficiencies. Napoleon is the Machiavellian trickster who’s in the right place at the right time, a media-friendly figurehead with huge self-confidence, an opulent lifestyle, and no real ideas of his own. At the end, even Clover realises that they’re all in on the game, each one with their trotters in the trough, champagning it with the enemy; but it’s far too late to do anything about it. A story of the Russian Revolution and subsequent rise of Stalinism? Yes, but with so many similarities to the last thirty years of the UK as well.
Ed Stambollouian’s lively production is full of colour, noise, movement and song; sometimes harsh to the ears with the stomping and shouting, but this is no drawing room comedy. Out of necessity, Tatty Hennessy’s adaptation plays with some of Orwell’s characters – the book has a large cast of creatures that has to be shrunk down to fit a cast of sixteen – and the order of events is occasionally moved around. But the adaptation, though occasionally wordy, tells the story clearly and with no holds barred. The scene, for instance, where four of the animals are summarily executed hits you with its cleverly suggested brutality, and stays in your head a long time.
The cast put their heart and soul into the show and form a tremendous ensemble who work together superbly and generously. Jack Matthew has terrific stage presence and in his performance as Napoleon, we clearly see his character’s double standards and ambiguity towards both the truth and the society that looks up to him. Will Atiomo’s Boxer is the pinnacle of dignity and honesty; I don’t know how he does it, but he subtly contorts his face in a way that really suggests a noble horse’s head – it’s a wonderful achievement. Adeola Yemitan is also superb as Clover, her slow kindness and supportiveness radiating in every scene; whenever she questions the original policies that were agreed at the first meeting and doesn’t realise they’ve been manipulated by the Party, you can see, through her pained eyes, her thought processes slowly drifting into acceptance and the realisation that she must have been wrong. (She wasn’t).
There’s an excellent and agile performance by Ben Wilson as Snowball, bringing huge energy to the movement and dance sequences, and eclipsing Napoleon with his oratory skills. Matilda Rae’s Squealer is delightfully slippery and manipulative – her occasional firm and ruthless killer lines are brilliantly delivered. I thought Ishmel Bridgeman was brilliant as Blue the dog; starting off as a playful and impudent pup, but by the time he’s been “trained” by Napoleon, he’s turned into a savage Rottweiler who carries out his master’s orders with clinical malice. Will Stewart was also excellent as the vain Molly, desperate to cling on to her ribbons and rosettes because that’s the only identity she has.
James Eden-Hutchinson’s Milo was a favourite with the audience, breaking the fourth wall with his reflections on what’s happening so far – and also entertaining us with his music-hall style advice for how we should behave during the interval! I also really liked Connor Crawford’s grotesque caricature of both farmers, dominating the other animals with his physique and suggestions of violence. But all the performers give excellent performances; a technical thing that’s often overlooked, all the actors had terrific clarity of diction which is always appreciated by a theatregoer who’s getting older!
In the programme notes, Tatty Hennessy writes that she hopes the play makes you angry. It did. But our anger is not only directed to the Napoleons and Squealers of this world, but also to the Clovers and the Boxers for making it so damned easy for history to repeat itself.
Despite the slight unease about being back in a theatre, it was just such a thrill to be back in the Royal, witnessing the magic that only live performance can create. So, thank you – to the cast for their performance, to the creative team for organising it, to the theatre staff for making us safe and welcome, to our fellow audience members for simply being there and witnessing the return. And let’s hope for another return – to some kind of normality. With the rise of the Indian variant, it’s too early to know; but at least last night we could celebrate the here and now, and that was a wonderful thing to share.
P. S. If I have a suggestion for how it could feel even more secure in the theatre, I was expecting a more orderly and structured plan for everyone leaving the theatre at the end. Having carefully avoided each other with one-way systems and toilet marshalling, it was a bit of a free-for-all with the complete breakdown of social distancing. Next time I think we’ll deliberately wait for everyone else to leave first.
Rehearsal photographs by Ali Wright