A lone Renato Musolino transforms into pigs, hens and Stalinist caricatures in an arresting performance of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
“Four legs good, two legs baa-d,” is the cry of the sheep in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The sheep are distilling seven commandments born in revolution into a simple maxim that even they—forgetful, docile creatures that they are—can remember. Thus Orwell’s text launches us into the world of animal-workers struggling against the exploitation of their human master.
An allegory of the Bolshevik Revolution and its aftermath, Animal Farm relies on the vivid personalities of its characters to elevate the story. Renato Musolino, in a one-man show for the State Theatre, delivers this vivid performance. Alone on the stage for over 80 minutes, he transforms from Boxer the Horse to Benjamin the Donkey to Squealer the Pig with fun and bold conviction. Musolino extracts key traits from the animals—such as hoffers for pigs—and represents these in his body language, invoking the essence of the characters without props or costumes.
The work is a condensed version of Orwell’s text, and Musolino’s task of memorising 12,000 words—alongside the specific movements and noises of all the characters—is no easy feat. Yet he injects lightness and vitality into the varied roles—Squealer, based on Vyacheslav Moloto, is a shrill spin-doctor, a traitor of truth, yet his character also contains warmth. Rather than despising him, we glimpse the irony of his position, the humour in his opportunism and cowardice.
The set design is minimalist, and the severe lighting and sound create an unsettled mood. At the beginning of the show, a sound effect stuns and frightens the audience, and that tension hangs heavy in the air for the rest of the performance. The stage direction effectively enforces this—while narrating a series of unfortunate events, Musolino’s body is frozen in the position of pulling a heavy cart, a heavy burden. The lack of other distractions—be they actors or props—concentrates all of our attention on Musolino’s acting, and he is found to be a skilled storyteller.
As the revolutionary moment passes, the pigs take control of the farm, reinserting old forms of tyranny into the new social order. The seven commandments begin to mutate until we hear the death rattle of the revolution: “Four legs good, two legs better.” Standing alone on a dark, menacing stage, Musolino’s sheep’s wail is startling.
If Animal Farm is a piece that requires discomfort, this production delivers it in abundance.
Animal Farm was performed at Space Theatre on Friday, March 22
James Hartley / State Theatre Company South Australia