Animal Farm: From Page to Stage

Animal FarmAlongside To Kill A Mockingbird, Animal Farm would have to be up there as one of the most-loved books we were required (forced) to read at school.

While I struggled with Shakespeare (though the waffle is clever, my small brain still found it waffle), Brave New World (the book’s extremely dated) and anything poetry-related, Animal Farm’s belyingly simple animal analogy spoke volumes to me. ‘Four legs good, two legs bad’ has to be one of my favourite lines of all time.

With too many books to read before I die, it’s unlikely I’ll ever get round to re-reading the Animal Farm. But seeing the book translated from page to stage by what is arguably Queensland’s best emerging-artist theatre company was too good an opportunity to pass up.

So I turned up on Wednesday night, one of the few ‘adults’ among a sea of school students. (I don’t in any way consider myself grown up, but I overheard some of the kids referring to me as ‘that lady’ when one inadvertently almost ran into me while enthusiastically and elaborately regaling her friends with a story.)

Not having read the book for a good decade or more (I’m not going to give you an exact number lest it remind me just how old I’ve gotten), my plot recollection was hazy. Pigs take over a farm; it’s a story that symbolises communism and the corrupting influence of power. Beyond that, it’s fair to say most things were a surprise.

Shake ‘n Stir‘s Animal Farm adaptation opens with a pig execution, silhouetted. It’s a shockingly violent, strobe-lit beginning—one that left me tight-chested and afraid. I recognised most of the performers from 1984, the other classic Orwell production Shake ‘n Stir brought from book to stage last year (an annual alternate, it seems, to Animal Farm, which is returning for its second season).

Each performer plays multiple and distinctly disparate characters, including one cast member alternating between a donkey and a chicken. They switch seamlessly and cleverly between them with simple mannerisms and simpler props.

Knuckles held just so connote pigs’ hooves and straightened legs and pronounced, toe-to-heel strides signify horses. Ears affixed to headbands connote pigs, and a long, frayed industrial rope slung over shoulders and flicked signifies a horse’s mane. The cast members wear kneepads too, which they need as they spend vast amounts of time kneeling, crouching, and flinging themselves about on all fours.

To Kill A MockingbirdI’d forgotten that there were two main pigs, Napolean and Snowball, so I’d definitely forgotten how the latter later comes to be blamed for anything and everything. I did, however, remember Boxer and his demise, so was shaken and emotional when he was taken to the knackers.

Though I knew Orwell had created some animal edicts, I was reminded again of their cleverness at first declaration and later as they’re shaped to suit the pigs’ modus operandi—‘no animal shall sleep in beds’ is amended to ‘no animal shall sleep in beds with sheets’; ‘no animal shall drink alcohol’ becomes ‘no animal shall drink alcohol to excess’; and ‘all animals are equal’ turns into ‘all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’. The last commandment is rather eerie for me having finally, ungracefully butt-shuffled my way to veganism in recent days.

There’s never going to be a ‘wrong’ time to read or watch Orwell’s animal tale, but one could argue that now’s as good a time as ever—just hours ago, Australia unconscionably excised itself from the migration zone, intentionally denying people who arrive here the chance of claiming asylum.

The Animal Farm season’s largely sold out (thanks in good part to school kids), but I do hope at least a few ‘adult’ politicians find their way into the other seats to revisit a book they (hopefully) read long ago.

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Fiona Crawford

Fiona Crawford is a freelance writer, editor, blogger, proofreader, and voracious reader. She regularly appears as a book reviewer in Australian BOOKSELLER+PUBLISHER magazine. Fiona is also (unfairly) known as the Book Burglar due to her penchant for buying family members—then permanently borrowing—books she wants to read herself.