From the company which brought us the chillingly memorable "1984", The Shake and Stir Theatre Company, comes "Animal Farm".
George Orwell published the novel in 1945. It clearly deals with the events leading up to the Russian revolution, the short-lived euphoria of having deposed a tyrant, and the reign of terror which follows.
Not light-hearted material, and not particularly child-friendly one might think. But Shake and Stir's experience in touring shows to schools shows in this production. Without undermining the strength and impact of the allegory, the actors engage their audience. With minimal costuming – grubby T-shirts and jeans – they tell the story with tremendous pace and energy.
With a squeal and a snort, and the wearing of pig's ears, we see and hear a pig. A sideways movement, and a whinny conjures up a horse. There may be elements of pantomime as we get to know the characters, but the dark humour, confrontational tight dialogue, and fast moving plot do more than justice to the story. "Animal Farm" keeps the menace, the satire, and the lacerating exposure of how, in the name of equality, exploitation flourishes, as some animals become more equal than others. We feel the sadness, as the animals, while trying to believe that things are getting better, become more and more exhausted and disillusioned.
Nick Skubij's adaptation works well – allowing his characters the freedom to establish a stage presence, and enjoying the opportunities for tragi-comic farce, while remaining true to the spirit of the text. He also plays a superb Napoleon – insensitive, vain-glorious, ruthless and glib.
Nelle Lee is both the flighty show-pony Mollie and the middle-aged mare Clover. In her body language she conjures up teenage self-obsession or middle-aged disillusionment, charming us, and saddening us. Ross Balbuziente is totally convincing as old workhorse Boxer.
Bryan Probets is brilliant as Napoleon's "spin-doctor" Squealer. Here is the person to whom appearance is everything, and truth is whatever suits the purpose of the moment. Probets is oleaginous and abhorrent – just as Orwell intended him to be.
The set works well – providing lots of entrances and exits, and changing moods from homely farm-yard to stalag in response to changes in lighting.
The Shake and Stir Theatre is to be congratulated on bringing the novel to life, in a way which may well encourage the students in the audience to go back to the text with interest and new understanding. I wish we had had companies like this when I was in school.
Animal Farm is on at Cremorne Theatre, QPAC from August 24-27 and 30-31. Tickets are $28-32 available through QPAC.