The cast of Animal Farm | The Wharf

What a relief. It was grave sense of foreboding I approached the Australian Theatre For Young People for the opening of its second production of the season.

The first, Cockroach, recommended itself only for extermination. I needn’t have feared. The prolific, energetic Netta Yashchin’s adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm turned things right ’round. Distinguished, in person, by her explosion of flaming red hair, she’s got most things very right with this production, which she also directs.

In the first place, it’s not necessarily an easy task to dramatise the allegorical novella, yet she’s managed to make it cohesive and coherent. Unfortunately, Orwell’s key themes, then directed against Stalinism, are still as valid, topical and potent today. Perhaps some detail and tracts may have been omitted, without any real loss of continuity, sense, direction, or purpose, but the point is moot.

In the second place, on entering the theatre, the set immediately comes into its own. As luck would have it, downstairs at The Wharf, where the ATYP resides, resembles a big barnyard. Designer Dylan James Tonkin and Yashchin have made the most of this, by using one of the large ‘barn’ doors for entries and exits. Seeing a menagerie of ‘animals’ emerge from the space might well have caused some minor alarm, or bemusement, for passers-by, but it worked for me. Danielle O’Keefe’s sound design was powerfully effective, for the most part, even if musical excerpts were little over-used and sometimes even obscured dialogue somewhat. Nick Rayment’s lighting was also sympathetically, glaringly incandescent; as dimly lit as a milking-shed in the wee smalls.

Tom Ringberg’s fight co-ordination and Dymphna Carew’s choreography were pivotal to the success of the show: when the frothing-at-the-mouth dogs set upon the pigs, for example, there’s a palpable, discomfiting sense of violence (slaughter and bloodletting is ingeniously and simply evoked, by way of a red strobe). And all the animal behaviour has been acutely observed, inculcated and expressed: of particular note are Sebastian Wang, as Boxer, the noble horse known for his maxim “I will work harder”, who carries himself with the upright dignity of a rippling prize stallion; the almost infinitely and inimitably feline and flexible Stephanie King as Cat, spending much of her time clinging to a curtain; Micahel Brindley, as Moses, the raven. Other fine performances included (but were not restricted to) that by Ziad Hindi, as the surprisingly wise donkey.

Yashchin has (re)’invented’ and adapted Orwell’s iconic novella in homage to a celebrated Jewish-Arabic theatre-maker and peacenik, in Juliano Mer, who was assassinated in Gaza and whose youth theatre produced the play. Soon after, the theatre in which it was performed was incinerated. It seems wickedness, in the name of a cause, is still as rife as ever; a cautionary note, lest we should harbour any contrary optimism. Mind you, nor should we be surprised by acts of terrorism, which are so often explicable, if one cares to delve, in any depth, into socioeconomic or political history.

Thus, Animal Farm will, sadly and most likely, always remain contemporary and vital, especially given a production as lucid and dynamic as this. Under Yashchin’s leadership and mentorship, the ATYP has been and is able to underscore the validity of its brief, by demonstrating just how deep is the theatrical ‘underage’ talent pool.

Yashchin’s Orwell begins well, sustains well and, as we all know, Orwell that ends well, which it does.

The details: Animal Farm plays Studio 1 at The Wharf until May 12. Tickets on the company website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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