In an era of fake news, it’s no surprise outgoing State Theatre Company artistic director Geordie Brookman has returned to George Orwell for his final production: a one man adaptation of Orwell’s Soviet parable Animal Farm.
In the pantheon of adjectives derived from author’s names, it’s hard to think of a more pejorative term than “orwellian”. Despite dying in 1950, George Orwell’s dystopian fiction has proved regrettably enduring and still has an alarming amount of relevance in the current political climate.
It’s why State Theatre Company’s Geordie Brookman programmed a stage adaptation of 1984 in 2017, and he’s included a one-man version of Animal Farm in his final year as Artistic Director. Renato Musolino is that one man, and though he’s excited about the work, he laments that “Orwell’s work just doesn’t age, sadly. Everything that Orwell was writing about is still happening… the abuse of power, propaganda, inactivity from the populace out of fear or laziness – I don’t really think there’s a strand of his writing that’s not relevant.”
The original novella caustically satirised the growth of Stalinism in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, but the allegory resonates beyond that historical context. After a call to arms against the drunken farmer who mistreats them, the animals of Manor Farm rebel and, led by the pigs, institute their own rule. It doesn’t take long, however, until one pig begins to consolidate power through purges and the wilful dissemination of misinformation, until eventually he and his cohorts become indistinguishable from the tyrannical human masters they overthrew.
Among the most memorable aspects of text is the way that the revolutionary maxim that “all animals are equal” is subverted by the addition of a qualifier: “but some are more equal than others”. It’s a savage indictment of the way that Stalin and his cronies completely ignored the tenets of communism, but read today acts as an equally pertinent critique of the way that equal opportunity and equal rights have turned into little more than platitudes in liberal democracies. Though Orwell’s text is scathing in its critique of Stalin’s hypocrisy and greed, it speaks to the abuse of power and deception of the populace in all forms of government.
Ironically, a willingness to redefine the truth became embedded in the text’s DNA when the CIA funded an animated adaptation that turned Animal Farm into a propaganda tool. The animated version has a number of differences, most notably the ending in which the other animals band together for a second revolution, overthrowing the pigs who have turned into caricatures of the original overlord.
The State Theatre Company’s production is true to the original text, though it has been condensed in this adaptation. “It’s all Orwell’s words,” Musolino says, “it’s just been very tightly edited and constructed”. But there’s one sense in which the CIA-funded film has been a key influence. Revered character actor Maurice Denham provided the voices for every human and animal character in that adaptation, including a range of grunts and squeals, and Musolino takes some cues from him in his solo performance.
“We’ve tried to look at each animal and pull out one or two traits that are very recognizable to that animal,” he explains, adding that these include gestures like a horse shaking its head or a pig using its trotters, as well as animal noises. That involves a lot of quick switches between characters over the show’s 80 minutes, and he is currently immersed in rehearsals as a result.
Immediately, some of the characters emerged as particularly fun to play, and he singles out Squealer as one. “Squealer is one of the four central pigs and he’s like a press secretary,” he explains. “When Orwell first constructed him, he was based on [Vyacheslav] Molotov and the Russian newspaper Pravda. He’s a lot of fun because he goes up to the other animals and spins these new truths and comes up with a lot of new truths that are very fantastical.”
The idea of a press secretary who plays fast and loose with the facts in an attempt to redefine the truth hardly seems like a phenomenon restricted to a bygone Soviet era. And Musolino is adamant that the text still resonates in large part because “all of these characters are present everyday, on our phones and tvs and newspaper…the concept of fake news in itself is as Orwellian as it gets. Politicians before our very eyes are changing the rules. They’re rewriting history, they’re negating any form of reality and truth and bending it and twisting it to support their agenda. And they’re getting away with it, sadly.”
And sadly, after more than half a century the relevance of George Orwell’s work remains undiminished.
Thursday, March 21 – Saturday, March 30