Theatre review: Animal Farm, Northcote Town Hall Arts Centre

Orwell's classic work given a Australian political spin.

As an allegory for the 1917 Russian Revolution and the failure of Stalinism to deliver on its egalitarian promise, George Orwell’s 1945 novella Animal Farm continues to be not only salient, but a peerless example of powerful and economic storytelling nearly 80 years on. It stands as a warning against blind faith in ideology, and a reminder that, as Lord Acton famously said in 1887 – absolute power corrupts absolutely.

This startlingly original, cleverly produced and performed new version by Melbourne-based independent theatre company Bloomshed takes Orwell’s classic story and highlights the continued relevance of the story to modern Australia.

In snappy scenes to a soundtrack of snazzy jazz, we witness the animal takeover of Manor Farm, the deposition of Farmer Jones (Sam Nix) – in Driza-bone and Akubra – and the instalment of the ‘two legs bad, four legs good’ philosophy of Animalism. 

Two of the farm’s pigs, Napoleon – performed with jowl-shaking vigour by the decidedly un-jowly Elizabeth Brennan (also co-writer) – and the forthright Snowball (Laura Aldous), quickly emerge as self-installed leaders of the new collectivist order. As they clash over farm management issues, there are more than a few nods to Parliamentary Question Time stoushes from Australian political history – Julia Gillard’s famous misogyny speech popping up briefly in the mouth of Snowball. Their slippery-tongued sidekick Squealer (Lauren Swain) becomes their comms/propaganda lead who, with a permanent smarmy grin on her face, does an excellent job of channelling Scott Morrison. 

In the Northcote Town Hall Arts Centre, the clever set design by Nathan Burmeister and Samantha Hastings makes the high-ceilinged and awkwardly oblong space an asset, borrowing the existing Art Deco architectural features and opulent champagne-coloured curtains as background for his golden set.

Four gilt-rimmed, clear Perspex-like covered boxes at the back of stage act as frames for actors in choreographed moments, a walkway and the room that Farmer Jones – and later the pigs – occupy, elevated and separate from the other animals. Three sets of inward-facing stairs placed in front of this walkway frame the central stage, allowing the actors to occupy different levels – the overall effect is of a modern, golden Parthenon, a symbolic tension between the promise of democratically-derived equality in a colour synonymous with greed and power.

The latter part of this version of Animal Farm diverges more obviously from Orwell’s story – as the Battle of Cowshed and the subsequent animal purges have left the now for-profit Manor Farm unable to deliver on its signed government contract. Squealer/Morrison is brought in front of a Senate enquiry: a surreal parody of our political system represented by a bunch of pen-pushing bureaucratic, burger-munchers (that’s not a metaphor – they are actually eating burgers). There’s a shift from allegory to satire as the play links the corruption at Animal Farm to moral bankruptcy of politics, capitalist greed and the complicity of our systems of government in the destruction of our environment.   

For all the enormity of what Animal Farm deals with thematically, it’s wrapped up in a smart, pacy, funny and highly entertaining package. Like Orwell’s novella – it packs a punch and doesn’t waste a single one of its 70 minutes. 

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Bloomshed has created something pretty special here. It’s thrilling theatre, done brilliantly. It was sold out on the night I saw it, and Darebin Arts has put on an extra performance to manage demand – I’d recommend nabbing a ticket while you still can.

Animal Farm
Bloomshed Artistic Director: James Jackson
Original Script: Elizabeth Brennan and James Jackson
Written, Created and Performed by: Anna Louey, Edan Goodall, Elizabeth Brennan, James Malcher, Laura Aldous, Lauren Swain, Sam Nix and Syd Brisbane

Dramaturg, Sound Design and Production Manager: Justin Gardam 
Set and Costume Design: Nathan Burmeister, Samantha Hastings  
Lighting Design: John Collopy 

Stage Manager: Jacinta Anderson

Animal Farm will be performed until 23 July 2023.

Kate Mulqueen is an actor, writer, musician and theatre-maker based in Naarm (Melbourne). Instagram: @picklingspirits Facebook: @katemulq Twitter: @katemulqueen