British historian Lord Acton once said “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and that quote came to mind more than once during Black Swan Theatre’s latest offering: George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
For those who need to brush up on their High School English Literature, the original story sees an uprising of the animals of Manor Farm against the cruelty of drunken old Farmer Jones. Following the uprising, the animals unite under the stewardship of the farmyard Pigs who promise to usher in a new era of equality, brotherhood and freedom for all animals only to manipulate them into recreating the same kind of oppressive society once more.
Feminist theatre maker and political powerhouse Van Badham’s theatrical adaptation of George Orwell’s 1945 classic is a rambunctious 75 minute charge through the modern political menagerie. While Orwell’s popular novella was a satirical allegory of the events of the Russian Revolution of 1917, Van Badham’s adaptation brings the action to modern times, choosing to draw parallels between the text and the recent Trump administration in the United States. She does so by drawing on the social media presence of the “Great Orange One” during his time in office and as the saying goes, the jokes tend to write themselves.
The audience is treated to video designer Michael Carmody’s carefully and oftentimes comedically curated content on an impressive cinema sized digital screen. Sensationalist headlines, political tweets, pop culture references and trending hashtags are adapted, scripted and compiled into digital performances. Even the infamous “Four legs good, Two legs bad” slogan is given a 21st century facelift with the updated catch cry of “Make Animal Farm Great Again.” At times it was hard to decide whether to laugh at the foibles of the farmyard leadership and their scaremongering tactics or cry because of how close they resembled the antics of our own sketchy political leaders (here’s looking at you One Nation).
By and large, Animal Farm’s greatest asset is its cast. With Andrea Gibbs, Alison Van Reeken and Megan Wilding playing a whopping 37 characters between them with such ease, one often forgot the cast was composed of only three actors. All three bring energy, ferocity and comedic gold to the clever adaptation. Of course such smooth transitions would not be possible without the considered and clever costuming choices of Fiona Bruce.
While the work’s heavy reliance on the American political landscape circa 2019/2020 can make it seem dated at times, it is important to note that the piece was conceived in 2019 and intended to be performed before the 2020 US Elections but was delayed by the recent pandemic.
There were also moments where you felt parallels could better be drawn from more contemporary issues, such as director Emily Mclean’s depiction of the change of guard and the current political climate in Afghanistan. And yet, such is the universal beauty of Orwell’s work- some things never change – regardless of where or when in the world we find ourselves.
Photos by Daniel Grant