Review: Animal Farm (Northern Stage)

Time has drawn the teeth from Animal Farm. Of course, it always was a sort of Loony Tunes, albeit with a political edge to it. When Halas and Bachelor made it into a cartoon back in 1955, it seemed only logical that the farmyard revolutionaries of George Orwell’s fable should become Disneyfied, which the cartoon’s epilogue – in which the animals lead a successful revolt against the pigs – added to the general air of unreality.
When Orwell first wrote it in 1945, the identification of Lenin with Old Major, Stalin with Napoleon, and Trotsky with Snowball was sufficiently contemporary to make it hard for him to find a publisher while the memories of Stalin’s leadership of our Soviet allies in the war against fascism were still fresh in people’s minds, but even though some politicos in various left splinters continue to rehash the struggles of the Twenties and Thirties which inspired it, its contemporary relevance shifts and moves its focus.
Sitting in the audience of this superb Northern Stage production, which has played before over 120,000 people in eight different countries, I found myself thinking not of the class struggles within the Soviet revolution but of the Blairite counter-revolution which is destroying the Labour Party today.
Here, once again, we have a leadership carried to power on a wave of popular anger at the depradations of the Farmer Joneses of Toryism, and the expulsion or marginalisation of any who might wish to the stay true to the ideals which inspired the victory of 1997.
And I found myself humming the anarchistic message of Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues: “Don’t follow leaders/Watch for parking meters.”
But then it was Trotsky who was the charismatic orator and Stalin the rather dull apparatchik, as even his closest admirers were ready to admit, so Orwell’s political parallels tend to break down. Dylan’s warning would have been more applicable to the leader of the Fourth International, if Bob had uttered it back in the days when it was a serious political force. Today neither Trotsky nor Stalin have successors with a hundredth of their political significance, and the left’s only important international leader – Fidel Castro – cannot be identified with any in Orwell’s fable, either as hero or villain – which rather knocks on the head any idea that it is an allegory for all times.
Northern Stage have turned it into an astonishing ensemble piece, a balletic, mimetic, athletic spectacle which constantly engages the ears and eyes in a way more reminiscent or the Commedia del Arte than the pantomime or music hall, which are also its partial antecedents. Working with a minimum of props, one set-piece follows another, the most amazing being the construction of the windmill out of odds and ends of furniture around the stage.
Two things have always puzzled me about Animal Farm. What are we to think of the character of Moses, the raven, whose fantasies about Sugarcandy Mountain are believed by the more ignorant of the animals? In this show, he becomes a Negroid gospel singer, and as he sang I couldn’t help thinking more of radical clerics like Martin Luther King, whereas presumably Orwell meant us to think of the Russian Orthodox Church, who opposed the revolution but added their spiritual power to the Soviet state when it was threatened by the Nazi Wehrmacht.
But those same impressionable beasts are the ones who are duped by Napoleon’s duplicity. At the heart of the piece is a disregard, even a disgust for the supposed lack of intelligence of the working class – not surprising in a public schoolboy trained in the colonial police, ever ready to sell out his comrades to the secret police of the British ruling class. Such a disregard does not surprise me – but I find it hard to understand how so many leftist intellectuals let this basically reactionary class basis slip them by.
Perhaps it is because, at heart, they share it.

(West Yorkshire Playhouse. Morning Star, March 2004)

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