Animal Farm – Cambridge Arts Theatre and touring  

Toby Olié’s puppetry (see our interview on page 26) are what this show will be remembered for. If life sized puppets are to live, they must never be still. Designed and directed by Olié these jointed creations are magnificently controlled by a team of fourteen skilled puppeteers, they move continuously in a convincingly equine, canine, feline, bovine – or whatever – way. His pigs are terrifying and Benjamin the goat the epitome of common sense and wisdom. And the birds are a delight.

Robert Icke’s adaptation (he also directs) tells the familiar story fairly straightforwardly as the animals take over the farm, evict the farmer and set up a communist society based on total equality. Of course, it doesn’t work. The pigs assume the lead, gradually begin to exploit the other animals and are eventually indistinguishable from human beings. George Orwell’s famous, spare and impeccably observed 1943 novel is, of course, a response to developments in Soviet Russia from the revolution in 1917 to the Second World War.

Although the animals are voiced by fine actors such as Juliet Stephenson, Amaka Okafor, Robert Glenister and David Rintoul the disembodied voices unsatisfactory. It isn’t always clear which animal is speaking so your eyes are constantly searching on stage.

This is the third adaptation of Animal Farm I’ve seen in a year – all by different people. This is partly because Orwell’s writing came out of copyright in 2020 (he died in 1950) so there’s scope for a free for all.

But there’s another reason, much closer to home. I doubt that Orwell foresaw in the 1940s just how topical this tale would be nearly 80 years later. It’s about power, dictatorship, propaganda, authoritarian lies and ruthless selfishness. I doubt that I was the only Brit, less trusting than Clover, who muttered a few months ago: “And all the time, the pigs were boozing in the farmhouse”.

Review by Susan Elkin