Pictures: Manuel Harlan

Animal Farm

Coventry Belgrade


Where will you find an oversize horse, a patient cow, a pair of attentive goats, a very excitable goose, a furry white dog, flapping ravens and an inquisitive cat – not in a field or farmyard, but, believe it or not, on stage?

And not in a sty, but above all, the pigs, who gradually prove themselves not the supporters they claim to be (‘All animals are equal’) but brutal dictators, who prove their venomous nature by – after some 500 days of domination - gradually executing any of the creatures who dare to oppose them.

Animal Farm is of course based on George Orwell’s famously imaginative novel published in 1945-6, in which he charts or parodies the savagery of the Stalin years, which in the 1930s saw the pernicious butchering of nearly a million ill-starred Russians, of all classes: leaders and figureheads, intellectuals and yes, savagely ruined, suffering, peasants and farmers, dubbed ‘enemies of the working class’: a pogrom among his own people. It is thus that Orwell, as he said of his hard-hitting book, ‘sought to fuse the political and the artistic into one’.        

Well here at the Belgrade was a fabulous staging with a difference. A terrific difference. Forget human beings (admittedly there were one or two, and they turn up with rifles near the end).

It’s all about animals. The triumph of Robert Icke’s adaptation and production – shared with Birmingham Rep - was the brilliant way the animals were manipulated by almost invisible black-clad operators: of such brilliant, operative skill you really could believe most animals – the majority innocent and filling the stage - were real.

The gossiping hens (puppeteers Edie Edmundson and Darcy Collins)

Imagine a flurry of fussing chickens, an animated and flustery goose. The animals have ingenious articulated necks, so every one can be manoeuvred, creating believable creatures who are benign, mischievous, confused - or just plain corrupt, callous and finally wicked.   

Who are that evil brigade? It is the pigs, initially led by the rather thoughtful Old Major, who however starts the rebellion – is he a Lenin-like figure? - by expounding the way the animals are victims: ‘Man is king of every one of us’; All humans are enemies’; ‘We need Revolution for the overthrow of the human race.’

But Major expires and is soon succeeded – we could say supplanted – by the grotesquely ugly and dominating Napoleon: a truly frightening character here, pug-nosed and odious he dubs the farm animals ‘Comrades’, but that is the last thing he aims to make them. Unattractive, grotesque and hideous - unbelievably sinister, and in due course monstrous- a real Stalin - his method is lies, deception, viciousness, bestiality, ruthlessness.

They have got rid of the humans, but his speciality is inhumanity. He speaks with a vile, brutal, snarling (and superbly enunciated) voice: he cannot be answered back, and ‘meetings’ are merely for him to state his intentions. ‘I really do not do anger, Comrades, but now I am angry.’ In fact he spends most of his time putting down anyone who crosses him. He is, or by stages, becomes, a dictator.

The toadying, obsequious Squeela (puppeteers Ailsa Dalling and Matthew Churcher)

And he has a second in command. To begin with, it is Snowball, who is immensely articulate and the only pig who could challenge the power-hungry Napoleon. But ere long he demonises Snowball, accusing him of being a ‘traitor’, of conniving with the humans, and in due course he drives Snowball - who has been delighted that other farms are in revolt ‘We have started something, Comrades’ - away in ignominy.

The expulsion of Napoleon’s only potential rival figures prominently in Orwell’s story, and it is one of numerous ways in which this production, although it is partly invention, remains faithful to the original text.

The other odious character is Squeela, a toady who acts as Napoleon’s grim and grotty mouthpiece. Squeela is obnoxious (another brilliant voice, but so are they all: goats, horse, cow, hens) is loathsome, sickening, malevolent, repellent. How delighted we are when one of the animals exclaims ‘I’m sick of hearing your stupid voice’. He is a liar – part under instruction, partly off his own bat. ‘Beasts of England’ – their original triumphal song – has now been banned by the leader: ‘it’s a revolutionary song, and the revolution is over’. But the way Squeela’s head is deployed, nastily, nauseatingly is another splendid achievement and his cruel speaking is superb.

It’s not possible to identify who was playing which animal – the wonderfully lucid and expressive speakers, the handlers of each beast, innocent (like the brilliantly handled multicoloured goose, with endlessly twisty neck): not just the stimulating, emotive, vulnerable animal cast, who riskily potter around, but the talented, magnificent makers of these superlative, lifelike puppets – every one fantastically authentic- are not individually identified.


Boxer (puppeteers Elisa De Grey, Matt Tait and Rayo Patel) and Clover (puppeteers Yana Penrose and Edie Edmundson).

Here the ‘cast’ refers to those who so subtly and often excitingly, move both the heads and the legs, and even bodies, of every puzzled and ultimately frightened creature. These members of the cast are exceptional, too, in the way they rearrange themselves from scene to scene. Their precision at piloting the animals from one position to another is amazing. Pigeons cavort elegantly; ravens flit observantly. The chickens are a hoot.  

One of the most remarkable is Boxer, the noble stallion – one should call him ‘dobbin’ – who at the insistence of Squeela works himself almost to death in building the windmill which Snowball devised but for which Napoleon – typically - claims the credit. Meanwhile Squeela falsifies the truth. ‘Snowball was with the farmer from the start’; and with sinister presumption: ‘We will not tolerate treason on the farm’. Treason has become a recurrent feature as the pigs assert themselves. And resisting the leadership can lead to anyone’s demise; execution, in fact.  

The way Boxer – a huge stallion - is moved by the cast is truly marvellous. Boxer will end up in the knacker’s yard – Squeela claims he is going to hospital, another disgusting lie. But when Boxer and Clover the cow are alone onstage, their conversation is deeply touching. They are aware they are being misled and maltreated, but cannot find a way out of the miserable situation they haplessly find themselves in. With numerous executions being ordered by Napoleon, they really are in a situation parallel to the deadly Soviet Union of the 1930s.

So - a deeply disturbing story, as Orwell intended, with the good and honest set against a foul, depraved and degenerate opposition. These graphic, incredible farm animals, the abused, maltreated inhabitants of a world that imperils them, are truly believable. All credit to everyone involved. It was a glowing, wholly spirited, striking and dynamic piece of animated stagework. Vitally expressive, and marvellously enacted. What a treat. To 16-04-22.

Roderic Dunnett


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