Animal Farm

ZOE D’AVIGNON praises the pigs of Animal Farm

Animal Farm George Orwell Homerton Homerton College Auditorium jake spence James Macmillan

Homerton College Auditorium, 26th-28th February, 8pm, £5

Having guessed my way through school on the winged-backs of spark notes, rather than actually reading Animal Farm, I had very little actual idea what the performance was going to be like. Judging by the fact that the book is about animals, in a farm, I was expecting to be greeted with an array of face painting and faux-hoofs. But this is Cambridge and of course it was infinitely more sophisticated: some truly fantastic characterisation was brought to life with minimal makeup. I’d like to give particular praise to Tris Hobson, whose duck-like posture and mannerisms as Moses were by far the best. Although saying that, Alastair Phillips (Napoleon), Megan Henson (Squealer) and Jake Spence (Snowball) kept their hands hoofed for the entire performance.

The play, as I’m sure most of the English speaking world is aware of, is an adaptation of Orwell’s ‘imagine if’ novel where communism is allegorised on a farm with animals overruling their fascist human dominators – the point being, that communism descends into fascism just as pigs become increasingly humanised. The novel is complex and loaded with political messages that, when pretending to be a pig, might be difficult to present with enough seriousness. This performance met challenge of Orwell’s project: the visceral, disturbing and increasingly confrontational narrative was performed with flair whilst maintaining a strong grasp on the original text.

Some excellent trotter-acting

Some excellent pig-acting

The performance contained a significant amount of physical theatre. Usually I find people flapping and leaping around, freeze frames with dramatic light, and exaggeratedly expressive facial expressions wholly irritating. However, in this case, all these techniques were used to portray the clashes between the Animal and Human world with seamlessness and synchronicity. Many scenes of semi-improvised movement used the whole of the performance space with precision, whilst depicting chaos; the whole cast appeared to be individually focused yet simultaneously mindful of the appearance of the whole.

The stand out performance for me was that of James McMullan. James’ Benjamin (a stoic donkey) interjects over sections of action montage and freeze-frames throughout the performance to narrate the progression of the play. His vocally entrancing, slow and deliberate delivery was a true triumph that consistently clarified the current tone of the scene, and established atmosphere going forward.

Alastair Phillips (Napoleon) played well opposite Megan Henson (Squealer is to Napoleon what Khrushchev was to Stalin). Both characters were performed consistently, if a little too predictably: Napoleon as the bully and Squealer his nasty helper. The third pig Snowball (the hog with a vision who pioneers the pillars of freedom and equality), was played by Jake Spence with delicacy. The decision to insinuate that Napoleon and Squealer were husband and wife also gave a clever reflexivity to the performance as Alastair played the owner of the farm and Megan his wife at the beginning of the play.  Napoleon and Squealer’ romance demonstrated that although the farm had changed from hands to trotters, nothing else had changed at all.

A clever portrayal of Orwell’s classic – You’d be a swine not to see it!