Reviewed: Animal Farm

Caroline Gaunt finds an unsuccessful attempt at unconventionality for Hild Bede’s latest play.

Animal Farm

You certainly can’t accuse Hild Bede Theatre Company of shying away from a challenge. Taking on Animal Farm, one of the most seminal pieces of literature to come out of the 20th century, was a brave decision but not a successful one. The resulting production is messy, confusing and ultimately disappointing.

Predominantly on show here is a total lack of directorial focus – there is an evident desire to push boundaries, but the potential for provocative theatre is diluted through a lack of clarity in certain directorial decisions. There are bizarre attempts at breaking the fourth wall, which, coming out of nowhere, serve only to distract and confuse the audience.

There are inexplicable two-minute long silences, followed by an even more inexplicable cacophony of shouting, seemingly completely disconnected from what previously happened on stage. Some devices, such as an interrogation scene carried out using the blinding light from torches, could have been very effective, but again suffered from having too little concrete reasoning behind them, and seemed gratuitous as a result. I feel that director Hannah Brennan could have let the inherently ground-breaking nature of the text shine through a lot more had she been less focused on wrong-footing the audience and taking them out of their comfort zone.

The production is not, however, without its redeeming features. Jenny Hobbiss as Squealer just about rescues it – brilliantly sycophantic and grovelling from voice to mannerisms, but still inherently powerful, she is by far the most successful of all the eight actors, although Jordan Millican as Napoleon also has moments of brilliance.

I found his interpretation of Napoleon as a kind of psychopathic genius intelligent and well carried out (tics such as a shaking hand and occasional stammering were nicely placed and used just often enough to be effective), however, ultimately, I feel that he lacked the necessary charisma and power to make Napoleon a plausible leader in the first place. The remaining actors battled in vain against a production that required them to multi-role – further confusing the audience as the distinction between characters was rarely maintained with sufficient clarity.

Technically the production suffers from the outset from the fact that Caedmon Hall is just far too big for a play featuring only eight actors. Lines are lost into the depths of the hall from the very beginning, and yet actors are given free rein to wander from the stage to the very back of the hall – possibly another attempt to break from convention but one that becomes irritating when the audience are constantly forced to crane their necks to try to get an idea of what’s going on.

Bizarrely considering this issue of space, the stage was so crowded that some actors had trouble navigating it. I must, however, commend the costumes, which were excellent, truly evocative of rural life – I particularly liked the way wings had been fashioned from drooping sleeves.

The potential is there for Animal Farm to be resurrected as a searing indictment of the modern world – unfortunately in Hild Bede Theatre Company’s hands, this potential is never quite realised. Proof that some classics are perhaps best left on the page.