Animal satire with a human touch

20th September 1996 at 01:00
The absence of masks and animal costumes in Northern Stage's adaptation of Animal Farm gives George Orwell's farmyard fable greater scope, shifting the emphasis further towards the human.

First shown in 1993 and now revived with four of the original cast, this bold and inspired production has tremendous visual impact but remains faithful to Orwell's distinctive literary style. It is played on a stage filled with ankle-deep, farmyard mud and there are pallets and suitcases to improvise scenery. Characters arrive on stage carrying the suitcases, suggesting refugees searching for a space they can call their own.

The actors splash and cavort wearing what could best be described as improvised underwear. They are essentially human with their movements showing a suggestion of animal characteristics, almost in the manner of Steven Berkoff, rather than attempting full-blown farmyard impressions. Confrontational situations such as the Battle of the Cowshed include fast, dynamic choreography to the accompaniment of nightmarish, military music.

There is little hint of the usual direct analogy with Stalinist Russia, but it is clear how the fable format allowed Orwell to absorb and simplify events in the Russian Revolution and to satirise leading personalities. Change, hope and futility are dealt with in fundamentally human terms.

The range of symbols will enable audiences to put the story into different political landscapes, to find analogies with almost any dictator and any social system. The climax is emphatically upbeat and hopeful: the message is: OK, so dear old Major might be dead but his dream is worth pursuing.

Northern Stage has a supporting education programme, aimed at 14- to 16-year-olds, a key element of which explores the relationship between power and responsibility. In the theatre youngsters work with actors to prepare for a snap general election, creating political and pressure groups and representatives of the press. The election result is announced after they have seen the show. Follow up work in the classroom looks in detail at issues raised, especially the notion that the farmyard animals, and humans, are often complicit in their own repression.

* Stirling, MacRoberts Arts Centre, Sept 24-28

* Cheltenham, Everyman, Oct 1-5u Warwick Arts Centre, Oct 8-12u Taunton, Brewhouse Theatre, Oct 15-19u Middlesborough, Little Theatre, Oct 22-26 u Wakefield, Theatre Royal, Oct 30-Nov 1

* Dundee Rep, Nov 5-23

Plus further dates planned for spring. Tel: Northern Stage 0191 232 3366.

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