George Orwell’s allegorical farmyard story made waves when it was published in 1945. It’s a cutting and deeply effective critique of Stalinism, and it’s the kind of book that stays with you for years after you’ve read it. I know, because when I dropped in to see Australian Theatre for Young People’s adapted stage performance of the story, I was struck with exactly how many lines and references I remembered. It’s a powerful work that clings to your memory.
Director Netta Yaschin has been faithful both to the text and its growing challenge of uncomfortable truth in her production, which she also adapted from the original Orwell text. This strong ensemble work is adequately animalistic and devastatingly human, and not half as chaotic as you might expect a stage full of pigs and cows and horses to be. The characterisation is deft with the suggestion, rather than literal interpretation, of animal traits — a dog’s excited high-energy movement, a stallion’s strength of presence — and this ensures that, when the animals need to erupt in a cacophony of animal sounds and traits, like the ‘battle of the cowshed’, it’s downright powerful.
There’s a curious rhythm to the dialogue, which is still in its native narrative form from the book. It’s easy to fall into the habit of hearing characters describe their own actions and then segue into their spoken dialogue. It’s almost soothing, actually, to be told a story so directly, and it helps to build the tension of the play.
And it is tense. From the joyful revolution when the animals oust the human owners of the farm to the growing malevolence of the new regime, the tension in this production builds until it simply cannot any longer. It’s an insistent, insidious kind of atmosphere that is deftly handled with clever theatrical devices (thanks to the design team featuring Dylan James Tonkin, Danielle O’Keefe, and Nicholas Rayment) – like the Communist red light that couples so starkly with bloodshed and the starkness of the staging, which provides no visual distraction from anything but the story; this tightens the audience focus. You really can’t look away. You’re not supposed to.
What’s fascinating about atyp is that their actors are as a unit game, brave, and skilful – and they support each other in the spirit of ensemble. This not an easy work to tackle nor simple roles to play, but the relative ease of presence onstage and embrace by these actors of their animal roles is quite remarkable. Anyone interested in the future of Australian theatre should be keeping an eye firmly trained on youth theatre; anyone interested in the future of Australian Theatre should be watching atyp.
There’s a week left of performances of Animal Farm. Go and see it.