Review: "Animal Farm" at Soulpepper

Joe Szekeres

  • Toronto Critic

Soulpepper’s ‘Animal Farm’ wants to tell too much and, as a result, its’ core message is lost.

The Story

‘Animal Farm’ is an allegorical tale about English farm animals. Published in 1945 in England, the novel is a warning to author George Orwell’s countrymen who were in political alliance with Stalinist Russia.

The Opening Night Production

From my personal experience, I have spoken with non-professional and professional actors who like a good challenge in staging a live theatrical production. Soulpepper has challenged itself with last week’s opening of ‘Idomeneus’ and this production of novelist George Orwell’s classic tale, and the company is to be commended for this risk taking since it encourages the growth of all artists involved. Nevertheless, in risk taking, there will be moments where there are hits and misses, and this ‘Animal Farm’ shows it.

We’re greeted with Ken MacKenzie’s rather impressive set design and recreation of the inside of a barn complete with wooden clapboard slats and sliding doors that open and close with ease as one scene transforms into the next. A scrim above the stage is used effectively for projection of images. I understand why it is important to keep the stage clean as there is a great deal of movement in the production, but the floor was just a tad too clean for a barn. I was hoping to see some straw or hay scattered over the floor.

Animal Farm-1.jpg

The performers broke the fourth wall at the top of the show to introduce themselves by their first names and which animal they would play. I found this distracting as I now must work harder to immerse myself in the story once again.  Makeup and the animal masks were macabre and ghastly at first glance but, given the subject material of oppressive shifting leadership and changing values from Orwell’s story, it possibly made possible sense to show the possible societal effects through darkness and grotesqueness.  Costumes were fittingly labour class worker.

I so wanted to be intrigued and captivated with this ‘Animal Farm’, but the muddy vision of director Ravi Jain left me puzzled. In the Artist Note of the Programme, Ken Mackenzie asks us to keep in mind three objectives for this production: 1) Listen 2) Change, a moral imperative will will require a lot of work and don’t be afraid of it. 3) Be skeptical of those who believe they may have all the answers. Ok then, these three tasks are not a lot to be asked so…

I listened as best as I could. The actors’ voices were synthesized through individual microphones, an inventive idea but one that grew tiring as the story progressed. The distortion in sound quality was not always clear. Some of the biting wit and comment in the first act was lost on me through this sound distortion, and I missed understanding the humour in the moment. If I was growing tired of listening to the dialogue of synthesized voices, it became difficult for me even to understand those moments where I was asked to change my perspective and understanding about the revolt of the animals on the farm and why it was necessary.

There were some individual performances which beautifully captured and hit the mark on how we must become skeptical of those who have all the answers. As Napoleon the pig, Rick Roberts terrifyingly captures the leader who wants to get his own way through propaganda and humiliation, a reminder of Stalin (and even a hint of Donald Trump thrown in here as well). Raquel Duffy as Mercy, the cackling hen, led much of the humour as the other hens began to squawk at the rising number of eggs to meet a quota and who go on strike in the process.  The laying of the eggs is quite funny as they bounced on the ground like golf balls on a floor.

Final comment

Some momentary glimpses into oppressive societal norms make this ‘Animal Farm’ noteworthy but, given our current Canadian political climate today in our own country and south of the border, this story should spark more discussion on the political spectrum and it doesn’t.

Opened: March 15, 2018

Closes: April 7, 2018

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes with one fifteen-minute intermission

Visit www.soulpepper.ca for further information.

With: Leah Cherniak, Oliver Dennis, Raquel Duffy, Miriam Fernandes, Rick Roberts, Paolo Santalucia, Sugith Varughese, Guillermo Verdecchia, Jennifer Villaverde, Michaela Washburn, Sarah Wilson.

Photo of the Animal Farm ensemble by Cylla von Tiedemann.