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Jennifer Villaverde, Raquel Duffy, Michaela Washburn and Leah Cherniak in Animal Farm.Cylla von Tiedemann


2.5 out of 4 stars
  • Animal Farm
  • Written by George Orwell
  • Adapted by Anthony MacMahon
  • Directed by Ravi Jain
  • Starring Oliver Dennis, Raquel Duffy, Miriam Fernandes, Rick Roberts, Guillermo Verdecchia, Sarah Wilson
  • At Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto

Is it wise to modernize Animal Farm? George Orwell’s 1945 classic about a bestial utopia gone wrong is at once a precise and poignant satire of Soviet Russia under Stalin and a wider cautionary fable about the making of dictatorships and totalitarian states.

Latching on to its more general truths, Soulpepper Theatre has boldly taken a gamble and reshaped it to reflect today’s sociopolitical realities. Now, it’s no longer about the failure of communism, but of capitalism.

For this new dramatization, commissioned by Soulpepper and receiving its world premiere, playwright Anthony MacMahon has plowed up Orwell’s text and reseeded it with topical references and jokes. Director Ravi Jain, who gave Soulpepper audiences a timely and hilarious update of another classic satire, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, three seasons ago, sets out to work that rejuvenating magic once again.

What they’ve come up with, however, is only fitfully successful. This Animal Farm may speak to us more directly, but where Orwell was precise, MacMahon only generalizes. His farm doesn’t represent one state, but an overall state of affairs that allows him to touch upon any number of current issues, from economic disparity to immigration and automation. And while Jain’s concept for the show makes the most of the comedy inherent in actors portraying animals – greatly assisted by Ken MacKenzie’s inspired costumes – it fails to adequately capture the tragedy underlying the story, that of gullible followers whose faith in their leader is steadily, ruthlessly betrayed.

Orwell’s ironic tale tells of a group of farm animals who bravely throw off the yoke of human tyranny, only to see their new-found freedoms slowly eroded under their devious pig leader and his porcine cadre.

In the novel, that leader, the cunning boar Napoleon, is clearly modelled on Stalin. Here, as played by Rick Roberts (who excels at playing smooth deceivers), he’s a little bit Putin, a little bit Trump, with a rhetoric that also borrows from the late Margaret Thatcher. He is, in short, an amalgam of the power-hungry populists and strongmen now bestriding the world stage, putting on a benevolent face while keeping protesters in check with an army of vicious dogs.

His rival pig, the Trotsky-like Snowball (a delightfully dithering Sarah Wilson), is now a well-meaning but fussy little technocrat, and no match for Napoleon’s brute appeal among the simpler farm animals. They include Boxer (Oliver Dennis), his biggest supporter, the hard-working but hopelessly dim horse who spends his few leisure hours buying lottery tickets and watching television. His best friend, the cynical old donkey Benjamin (a touching Guillermo Verdecchia), struggles in vain to enlighten him.

Then there are those cackling hens in the chicken coop that finally get fed up with the rising quota on their eggs (which keep popping out of their backsides like ping-pong balls) and go on strike. Chief among them is Mercy (a sublimely silly Raquel Duffy), who at first seems to be a feather-brain with a Les Misérables fixation, but later turns out to be a feisty radical.

As this suggests, there is plenty of funny business going on, informed by Jain’s background in clowning and physical comedy. The cast of familiar Soulpepper performers is virtually unrecognizable under all the masks and makeup, with their voices amplified and distorted to boot. But there’s some delicious comic acting beneath those layers, including juicy bits from Jennifer Villaverde as a bloodthirsty hen and Michaela Washburn as a sketchy raccoon doctor.

Act 1 suffers from too many static, talky scenes, but the Battle of the Cowshed (when the animals overthrow their human owner) is cleverly suggested offstage, with voice-overs and sound effects – a trick Jain also pulled with the duel in his acclaimed Prince Hamlet last season. The second act, taking place well into Napoleon’s reign, piles on the contemporary angles. The propagandist Squealer (Miriam Fernandes) is reimagined as a host on the farm’s state-controlled TV. When Boxer is injured on the job, he faces a lack of health insurance and limited workhorse compensation. The two neighbouring farms are now made to represent Asia and the Middle East.

There is discontent in the form of the angry hens, who start up a women’s-cum-Occupy movement. There is also the expected pathos over Boxer’s ignoble fate. But the serious tone comes out of nowhere after the levity that has pervaded the show up to that point.

The wit extends to the design, which has the look of a bucolic nightmare. MacKenzie’s rustic barnyard set is bathed in André du Toit’s eerie lighting, and the costumes and props are a marvellous mix of the homely and surreal: a cow wears an apron with dangling udders, an injured animal spurts blood-red yarn. Composer Richard Feren contributes ironically cheerful hoedown music.

Much of this Animal Farm is a hoot, but by trying too hard to prove how relevant it continues to be, MacMahon and Jain end up blunting Orwell’s original sharp satire. We’re left only to be reminded once again that, whether in a communist or a capitalist state, inequality is the seed from which revolutions grow.

Animal Farm continues to April 7 (

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