The boar Old Major gathers Manor Farm’s animals for a meeting, speaking of a dream he had where animals live together in unison and harmony free from the oppression of humanity. Telling them of song named ‘Beasts of England’, he further claims that the animals must work towards this goal of freedom. Based on the novella by George Orwell inspired by the 1917 Russian Revolution, National Youth Theatre’s take on the original text really left me with lots to think about. Originally published near to the end of the Second World War in August 1945, this adaptation tells the story of a group of animals that rebel against their farmer – depicting rebellion, resistance, and betrayal.
Animal Farm was intended as an allegory for the 1917 Russian Revolution, however unfortunately it can be applied to really any instance of fascism since, from the rise of fascism in Britain with Oswald Mosely and his British Union of Fascists to the present day with the rise far-right in our present Government. As long as fascism continues to exist in our society, Orwell will continue to have relevance and the novella Animal Farm especially, and its adaptations. Most of us with interests in literature will be familiar with George Orwell, at least in name, as he is one of the most famous British authors of the last century. He is also probably a household name. Famed for his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, Orwell was political commentator and journalist writing other texts including Down and Out in Paris and London as well as The Road to Wigan Pier amongst others. National Youth Theatre in collaboration with the Royal & Derngate have put together a super construction. However, whilst at times it was difficult to pinpoint who was who, I think that is the point – in the sense that it did not really matter who was who, since almost all the characters began to think and act the same in the end. Those that did not conform were dealt with.
In this train of thought, the way Animal Farm was adapted was reminiscent of the illustrations in the comic V for Vendetta. The illustrations are striking in the way that all the characters are drawn the same (or similarly), except for V. The lead character V is the stand-out because of how he is drawn and also how he acts, sticking it to the system and interrupting the status quo. Whilst the original text Animal Farm is not a comic, but a novella, the fact in this adaptation it is difficult to differentiate characters apart might be an artistic choice – to show it does not really matter who is who since nobody is allowed their individuality anyway. Where some might find this to be cause for criticism, I find this to be an interesting thread of analysis where even in 2021, few of us are allowed to bring our “full selves” to work. Individuality can be a figment, to varying degrees in our spaces.
Whilst I enjoyed all of the performances, I struggle to name names because they all became conflated in the end. However, the Pidgeon’s short snappy monologues made me chuckle reminding me of Luis’ monologues in Marvel’s Ant-Man played by Michael Pena. Performances aside, the pacing was good, and I found the simplistic set design to be one of the best parts of this play. The PVC door strips were a great touch reiterating the mental prison all the characters found themselves in, connoting images of their foreboding slaughter, either by humans or each other thus becoming surrogate humans, since as the feminist and critic Simone de Beauvoir wrote in 1947, “the oppressor would not be so strong if [they] did not have accomplices among the oppressed themselves.”
National Youth Theatre and Royal and Derngate have done a good job at adapting one of the 20th century’s most important texts, a novella that still has application in the modern day – both in Britain and across the political landscape. Following the release of Animal Farm near to the end of the War, in 2021 we see the Government that uses its Black and Brown MPs acting as the ‘diversity bunting’ of institutional racism – “the oppressor would not be so strong if [they] did not have accomplices among the oppressed themselves” – and the most relevant message (I believe) is how stories are often not just stories; a play is never just play. Art is inherently political, intended or not, always giving us lessons of what not to do, this time Orwell speaking from beyond the grave.