Five star review of Animal Farm at Hull Truck Theatre

Animal FarmHull Truck TheatrePhil Penfold 5/5

Cohesive ensemble theatre is a rare thing these days. But with their latest production, Hull Truck goes several streets ahead of good, and into the category of “must see”. It is thought-proving, at times ironically humorous, poignant, and precise. Many plays, as someone once wrote, are built on two storeys. There’s the ground floor of realism, and the first floor of symbolism. Ian Woolridge’s dextrous re-telling of the George Orwell fable goes further than that – grimly farcical at street level, and tragic one flight up. In his adaptation, he’s given us a perfect example of this unique architectural audacity .On the ground floor, the play is Orwell’s idea that he can show the unpleasantness of the world, tyranny, and its many authoritarian regimes, by illustrating animal, and not human, behaviour. Thus Orwell’s animals, in the main, are far from warm and loveable creatures.

In fact, since he was writing in the early forties, Orwell was singling out one particular tyrant, dear old “Uncle Joe” Stalin, at that time a close ally of the British, and helping out in the war effort. The upper floor here is the truth – that Stalin was a murderous, unprincipled despot, whose reign of terror over two decades managed to kill many millions of his own people. The farce is that many thought him to be an exemplar for the modern world, someone who had helped to bring down the tyranny of the previous Czarist regime. The stark fact is that Stalin was worse than Nicholas II by several miles. And then there were Stalin’s circle of cronies, each as bad as the next, all fearing for their own lives should they ever stray from the party line. Orwell had to give us an allegory, because – had he written the truth – his situation would have been precarious, to say the least. In wartime, you want as much help from your “friends” as you can get. In the same way, Arthur Miller chose to set The Crucible, his play about mass hysteria and injustice, in an American settler community, and not in the day of the appalling Senator Joe McCarthy and his post-war witch-hunts. Orwell rather liked the far left (in principle) and so did Miller. Both chose to tell their tales from a different angle.

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Orwell’s story has endured – as Wooldridge reinterprets it for the stage – because each era delivers its own tyrants. At the top of the malodorous pile at the moment is Mr. Putin, and that’s what makes this play, and Orwell’s original novella, terrifyingly relevant. And what a team we have here. Iqbal Khan’s forceful direction propels us along with unerring accuracy, and then we have Su [CORR] Newell’s inventive costumes, all of which make us believe that we are in the farmyard itself, Gerry Marsden’s glorious soundscape, and Ciaran Bagnall’s fascinating set and lighting. To single out any of our performers would demean the rest of them, they are all uniformly dextrous and compelling – and also, at times, repelling, but that’s part of Orwell’s purpose. The novella, by the way, is also an examination set book. Any youngster who is lucky enough to witness this account will not only be given a unique understanding of the text, but also a first-class introduction to theatrical practice. You can only envy them.

Until April 13