Ridiculous Twitter accounts, hyperbolic slogans, fake news… Black Swan’s take on Orwell’s classic satirical work is both relevant and powerful, and Claire Trolio is here for it.
Animal Farm, Black Swan State Theatre Company ·
Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA, 6 October 2021 ·
When Black Swan State Theatre Company announced a new theatrical version of George Orwell’s 1945 anti-Stalinist novella Animal Farm as part of their 2020/2021 season, I knew the story would still be relevant in the context of today’s political milieu.
What I didn’t contemplate was how little of the narrative would need to be adapted in order to reference contemporary events.
That original story sees the animals of Manor Farm unite under the banner of equality and freedom, overthrowing the farmer only to be manipulated into helping create a similarly oppressive society. Our state’s flagship theatre company commissioned social and political commentator, journalist and playwright Van Badham to adapt the satirical work and thrust it into a present-day setting.
The script is a work of art. It closely follows the original narrative, but what’s different is how the information is presented. Badham draws on sensationalised news bulletins, vlogging vernacular, interrogative journalism, pop music and social media to create our modern world.
Unsurprisingly the work heavily references Trump. “Make Animal Farm Great” is the slogan that underpins the new order, there’s a ridiculous Twitter account from Animal Farm’s President Napoleon, along with a hyperbolic campaign about protecting borders, and a whole slew of gaslighting, intimidation, propaganda and fake news.
Certainly it’s not all unique to Trump; inspiration for the characters in Animal Farm can also be found a little closer to home.
Badham’s fiery dialogue is in tremendous hands: Andrea Gibbs, Alison van Reeken and Megan Wilding play all the characters, each cycling through various roles with the use of masks, wigs, tails and onesies. The playful choices from set and costume designer Fiona Bruce complement the humour of the both the new script and Orwell’s original.
The three performers are brilliant comic actors, each bringing ferocity and authority to their roles. On opening night Wilding (who performed in another of Badham’s plays, Banging Denmark, for Sydney Theatre Company) might just have been the crowd favourite. Her portrayal of Squealer – a pig whose two maniacal monologues evoke the gossipy tone of vlogger parlance – is bang on.
Digital content is essential to this work. Bruce has a cinema-sized screen hanging above the stage, reminding us of how ubiquitous digital media is in modern life. Video designer Michael Carmody has expertly compiled real-world footage, pre-recorded performances from the three actors, and graphics. This on-screen content reflects our ability to record real life, whilst highlighting the need to question what truth is, the importance of context, and the traps of misinformation.
At the crux of it, Badham’s Animal Farm is a sharp critique of the way in which information is disseminated, how we consume it and what we choose to believe.
Though a hyper-stimulating digital world is portrayed, under Emily McLean’s direction the work is harmonious and well-paced, underpinned by Rachael Dease’s rousing soundtrack which weaves together original compositions with traditional folk and pop melodies.
Before Black Swan’s 2020 season was postponed due to the pandemic, Animal Farm was set to be performed before last year’s US presidential election. But while Trump is now out of office, this production reminds us of the forces of power that are still in play even when the tyrannical farmer has been overthrown.
Pictured top: Andrea Gibbs in ‘Animal Farm’. Photo: Daniel J Grant
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