Art imitates war

Orwell’s Animal Farm has taken on a new resonance with Vladimir Putin’s war, and it’s enhanced in this production through the use of puppets

Hero image

When a photo of terminally ill children standing in the snowy courtyard of a hospice in Kazan, southwest Russia, emerged earlier this month it was a haunting indication of the extent to which Vladimir Putin’s information war was raging alongside his literal bombs across the Ukrainian border.

Horrified viewers in the West questioned how the children, standing in a letter Z formation in a show of support for the invasion and knowing only too well the fragility of life, could come to endorse an equally deadly fate for their Ukrainian peers. And how can we begin to explain it to our children – who have never known the horrors of war or dictatorship?

A new touring production from the Children’s Theatre Partnership offers a useful starting point. When George Orwell wrote his 1945 novella Animal Farm it was a satirical allegory for the rise of dictatorship following the Russian Revolution. The book tells the story of a group of animals who overthrow their human farmer, only to then fall under the rule of Napoleon, a fierce Berkshire boar with a reputation for getting his own way. The character was heavily inspired by Joseph Stalin, but Napoleon’s methods of controlling the masses – through a lethal combination of fear and propaganda – are all too relevant in light of Putin’s war.

“The novel uses animals to think about humans, and the ways in which power structures and hierarchies form even when everybody has made a big decision to get rid
of those things,” says writer and director Robert Icke, who previously adapted Orwell’s 1984 for a West End production.

“It’s a simple story – the animals have a revolution and clear out a corrupt old hierarchy to give themselves freedom, and then slowly piece by piece a corrupt hierarchy of pigs builds its way back again.”

In an extension of the allegory the main cast of Animal Farm is a group of puppets, controlled by 14 puppeteers working under the leadership of Sheffield-born Toby Olie. Olie began his career as the rear end of Joey, the animal star of War Horse, before graduating to play the front. He’s the mastermind behind Animal Farm’s 30 life-sized puppets, which range from huge carthorses to tiny pigeons
and took eight months to build.

“Every character apart from the farmer is an animal,” he says. “They all talk too, which is a challenge, but we found a really interesting way of making it work: we tell the story with a sort of animal language and animal physicality but then you hear the dialogue like it’s being translated for you.”

Like Orwell, Olie understands the ability of animal stories to translate complex ideas. The trick of making the puppets work effectively, he says, is for puppeteers to immerse themselves in the language of the animal, “particularly the emotional indicators likethe ears, the difference in gait between a trot and a gallop.

“Helpfully animals give away their emotions more quickly than we do. They are far more responsive, emotive things to watch.”

Children, Olie says, who are closer to a state of play, with toys and imaginative action, will get the language of puppetry instantly. Although it’s a story that’s unlikely to spark a revolution, at a time when communication is more vital than ever, it may spark some meaningful conversation.

Animal Farm is recommended for ages 11+ and is at the Lowry, Salford, 22-26 March; Grand Theatre, Blackpool, 19-23 April; and Playhouse, Liverpool, 26-30 April

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Art imitates war

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.