Posts Tagged ‘George Orwell’

I don’t think there’s been a stage adaptation of this George Orwell novella in London for thirty-eight years, when Peter Hall put it on in the NT’s Cottesloe Theatre. That was in 1984 – spooky! Orwell’s novel 1984 was last adapted for the stage, very successfully, just eight years ago by Robert Icke at the Almeida and on tour. He’s also responsible for this equally successful page to stage transfer. In the annals of theatre, there is pre-War Horse and post-War Horse. We’re well into the latter epoch, so the key to this one’s success is Toby Olie’s extraordinary puppetry.

Orwell’s allegorical fable is said to be inspired by the Russian revolution, where the push for equality ultimately results in dictatorship, still the case there more than a century later. At Manor Farm the animals, led by one of the pigs, Napoleon, successfully usurp Farmer Jones in their quest for freedom, happiness and equality, with seven commandments outlining their objectives and governing principles. Power of course corrupts and the pigs break them one by one, until Napoleon reinvents himself as a clone of Jones. More animals die in the post-revolutionary days than ever did during it.

The entire ‘cast’ of horses, cows, pigs, goats, chickens, ducks and geese, together with dogs, cats and birds, populate the virtually bare stage, expertly handled by fourteen puppeteers, a few of which also take acting roles. It’s performed at great pace, aided by corrugated iron screens which move from side to side. Electronic displays signpost the scenes, notably the weekly meetings which go from democratic debate and voting to autocratic declarations, tell us how much time has passed and somewhat macabrely announce each loss of life.

Given the number of children and young adults in the audience, it must be a set school text (given the contemporary parallels, surely the present government will stop this soon?!). The speed of the storytelling holds the attention of those in the video & social media age. It drives home Orwell’s satirical points brilliantly, without any heavy-handedness, with occasional black humour, veering to chilling at times.

This is a high quality, accessible work that is likely to provide a positive introduction to live theatre for young people, as well as reminding us all of the fine line between democracy and dictatorship. The visit to Richmond is over, but it can still be seen in Wolverhampton and Bromley.

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The most striking thing about this stage adaptation of George Orwell’s novel is how freshly minted it feels; it’s very hard to believe it was written 65 years ago. It’s also surprising how few stage adaptations there have been of such a prophetic and dramatic story.

This one is ‘framed’ by some sort of book club in 2050, seemingly taking its lead from Orwell’s epilogue. Winston steps out of the book club and tells his story in flashback. It’s at its best when it’s at its most chilling – there are moments during his torture when you just have to look away – but it does lack pace a bit in the middle. It’s not in the slightest bit dated and almost completely plausible.

Headlong’s staging is as innovative as ever (Robert Icke & Duncan Macmillan, who also adapted it), with big transformations and great use of video in Chloe Lamford’s striking design.  In a fine cast, Mark Arends is a stand-out Winston and Hara Yannas a fine Julia.

They announced its run at the Almeida the day I went to Richmond Theatre, which pissed me off as I’d rather have seen it there, but as much as I admired it, I’m not sure I want to see it again.

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