A barnyard fable

TRUE TO THE PLOT Animal Farm, directed by Mathivanan Rajendran, at Museum Theatre Photo: R. Ravindran.  

Sometimes it begins with the storming of a crumbling, medieval fortress, representing the authority of a weak king and his flamboyant queen. Or the unexpected martyrdom of a man who has nothing left to lose, triggering off a movement that continues to scorch the Arab world. Or perhaps, it is a slave’s desperate bid for freedom, escalating into a spate of violence that shakes the foundation of ancient Rome. This time, however, it is a bunch of farm animals that rise up against their cruel owner, amidst heated speech, anthem echoes and promises of a doomed Utopia.

Animal Farm, George Orwell’s allegory of the Russian Revolution, may have bucolic settings, but it captures the essence of a revolution effectively — its blood and gore, its deceptiveness, its grandiose ideals with a weak, crumbling core, its power-dynamics and essential futility. And though Peter Hall’s adaptation of it, performed by the Madras Players in association with Stray Factory , at the Museum Theatre this weekend, was a complete entertainer replete with live music, quirky costumes and a sardonic narrative, it didn’t lose for a single second the underlying grimness and brutality of the subject it tackles.

The animals of Manor Farm, disgruntled by the callousness of their drunk, brutal master Mr. Jones, drive him off the farm, deciding to take over the running of it themselves. The pigs assume leadership, Manor Farm is renamed Animal Farm, more favourable rules and laws are instituted and for a while, all is well. Over time, however, things change. A struggle for superiority between two pigs, Napoleon and Snowball (ostensibly supposed to be Stalin and Trotsky) leads to Snowball’s expulsion from the farm and Napoleon proclaiming himself to be its absolute leader. Things go downhill from there — the laws are modified, animals are exterminated, starvation and misery reign in Animal Farm. To make matters worse, the pigs led by Napoleon hold out the hand of friendship to the original enemy, man — trading, drinking and socialising with him, while the other animals languish and suffer. And as the play progresses you realise that the pigs have stepped into man’s shoes in more ways than one and you can no longer distinguish between the two.

To hold hands paw-like, crawl on all fours, whinny and neigh, jump and crouch for over an hour-and-a-half without flagging, must have taken a lot from the actors, but they carried it off with aplomb, wearing their hide like second skin. Pooja Devariya’s choreography was certainly worth a mention as was Victor Paulraj’s lights (a line of bulbs that flickered on and off, in particular, offered plenty of drama and gravitas to the setting). The sets and costumes carted you straight into a pastoral, English village while the background music gave the production that extra edge. Shanoo Murali’s props were appropriate and clever — I especially loved the way three-legged stools were used to represent both milking bucket and cow udders simultaneously.

It was a bit hard to choose between P.C. Ramakrishna’s Old Major and his Mr. Whymper (he played both characters) but I particularly liked him as the crafty Mr. Whymper — who becomes the connecting link between the human and animal world after the revolution. Rishi Raj’s evolution from a decidedly uncharismatic porcine creature to a hominoid despot was rather well played out while Prashanth Oliver’s acting and his equine hairdo worked in tandem to recreate loyal, old Boxer. Both the girls on Animal Farm were fairly good — though Kavya Srinivasan’s coquettish Mollie was more appealing than Amrita Fredrick’s staid Clover. Squealer (Venkatesh Harinathan) was another gem, exuding the sycophancy and obsequiousness that the role entails.

The script did perfect justice to the book; in fact, it brought the book to life without compromising on its basic ethos and nothing was lost in translation. But like the book, it’s a bit too much to take at one sitting — an interval midway would have helped. Also, the play demanded an informed audience — while the narrative that punctuated the dialogue was exhaustive enough, it missed the metaphorical insinuations of the novel which add to its potency. However, in short, a production, that managed to capture the nuances of a totalitarian regime, honestly and captivatingly.

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Printable version | Jul 27, 2021 7:13:24 AM |

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