By Richard Lord
Two of the most heralded local theatre productions in the last quarter of the year both happened to be adaptations of celebrated novels. Though on the surface, these novels would seem to be totally different from each other, they actually are quite similar at their core, both being caustic examinations of swinish behaviour and the terrible cost of betraying ideals.
The two books and plays in question are Animal Farm and Mammon, Inc., the first treated to an energetic production by the Wild Rice company, the second given a fittingly cool, streamlined staging by Action Theatre. Let us start our look down on the farm.
When George Orwell sat down to write Animal Farm in 1945, he was a rather lonely figure on the European left. An ardent foe of capitalism and imperialism, he had grown to become an even more determined adversary of Communism, especially in its Stalinist version. Orwell the socialist felt that Soviet Communism had betrayed just about every ideal embodied in true Socialism. He even averred that the Communists had facilitated the Fascist victory in Spain’s civil war by waging a vicious, rearguard action against the other major leftist forces fighting there. This was no paranoid fantasy: Orwell himself had fought with a leftist brigade in Spain and experienced the betrayals and bold power grabs by the supposed Communist ‘comrades.’
But in 1945, most voices on the mainstream British left were hailing the victory over the most virulent strains of Continental Fascism in World War II. (Iberian Fascism had wisely remained neutral and largely unscathed in that conflagration.) This victory had only been possible with the delayed participation of Stalin’s Soviet Union, and British leftists could not say enough good things about the heroism, sacrifice and ferocity of their Soviet comrades and their leader. In fact, many used the flag of victory to help them cloak their eyes to two decades of ruthless dictatorship and assorted state crimes in the Soviet Union.
Orwell was almost as outraged by that willful blindness of the British left as he was by the actual mountain of misdeeds in the USSR. For Orwell, these betrayals were ridiculously easy to identify; so easy, a child could do it. In fact, he decided to write a kind of child’s fairy tale sketching out the treacherous history of the Soviet Union. Animal Farm was the result.
Animal Farm actually falls more under the category of political parable than fairy tale. In broad, bold strokes, it recounts the ascendancy of Stalin and his cohorts, the expulsion of Uncle Joe’s chief rival Trotsky, and the steady swell of crimes and betrayals that followed.
The novel was later turned into a rather successful full-length cartoon, and it has appealed to many theatre companies eager to take it onto the stage. A number of companies have done their own poached adaptations, bypassing the difficulties of dealing with the Orwell estate. One of the only estate-approved adaptations is by Ian Wooldrige, a former teacher of Singapore’s Ivan Heng. So when Ivan decided that Animal Farm had abundant dramatic potential which would speak potently to Singapore today, guess where he went for his adaptation.
Wooldridge’s adaptation is, in fact, thoroughly admirable. It tells its story with economy, energy and drive. There’s almost no fat on this script, and yet it remains quite loyal to Orwell’s text. This was no mean feat, since apart from the book’s set political speeches, absolutely no dialogue occurs between the animals. What transpires on the stage is Wooldridge giving voice and heart to the characters of Orwell’s work and their predicaments.
The Wild Rice production was, if anything, even more admirable. This show was splendidly theatrical, infused with energy and power, dynamically paced and well-acted. Ivan Heng, taking on the director’s duties here, made a number of key decisions that proved absolutely correct for this production. First of all, the actors do not wear animal costumes or act in close animal impersonations. This group of anthropomorphic animals focuses attention on the story and the predicament of its characters much better. We know they are supposed to be animals, but we feel their human situation deeply. (Quite correctly, the times when they act most like animals is in the presence of the script’s two human characters, underscoring the distinctions.)
The staging was another salutary decision. From the way the revolution occurs (chasing Farmer Jones off the stage, down through the centre aisle, out the rear door), to the way we see the pigs establish their hegemony over the barnyard is carried out simply but effectively. And the on-stage presence of the percussionists was another fine stroke. This presence serves both as an alienation effect, emphasising the action’s theatricality, and something which draws us in near-hypnotic measures into the beat and its role in providing subtext. (This, by the way, is the only production of Wooldridge’s Farm which has featured live percussion. Philip Tan’s composition and performance of this element were wonderful additions to the show.)
Heng is also to be applauded for his casting decisions, which went predominantly against type. Thus, the fleshy Selena Tan was not presented as a pig, but in dual roles as the play’s birds. In this capacity, Selena shows her deftness and the sly manipulative powers of the birds, who remain somehow above it all. Tan Kheng Hua, whom one might have expected to see flitting about as a bird, is present as a horse, giving full rein to the lithe and delicate qualities of this sensitive and easily frightened beast.
The diminutive Pamela Oei and the muscular-svelte Lim Kay Siu and Lim Yu Beng take on the pig’s roles, their dearth of girth highlighting the inner piggishness of these characters, making their human-like treachery more frightening as it progresses. Kay Siu doubled quite effectively as Boxer, the hardworking, unquestioning horse who serves the revolution until, too weak to serve, he gets slaughtered so the pigs can earn money off him one more time. (Kay Siu’s grooming for this show worked very well when he played Major, the philosophical pig who lays the groundwork for the revolution. With his shaved head, goatee and sharp Asiatic features, Kay Siu strongly suggested Lenin, the founding father of Soviet Communism.)
Also doubling effectively was Ferlin Jayatissa, who moved from the noble Snowball (based on Orwell’s own hero, Trotsky) and Benjamin the mule, stubbornly kicking back the doubts about the revolution he constantly finds within himself.
The cast, in fact, had no weak links. And let me not forget to mention first-time stage actor Jim Aitchinson who acquitted himself well as both Farmer Jones and the human delegate who arrives to seal a pact with the pigs, the final betrayal of the revolution. In fact, one of the show’s most effective and disheartening scenes is the closing one where Aitchinson’s human patronizingly offers Clover, the Tan Kheng Hua’s horse character, some sugar. For much of the play, Clover had tried to remain true to the pristine revolutionary values. As she cautiously comes to this human and starts to eat out of his hand, literally, the image tells us all the ideals have now been lost and the old order fully re-established, though under new tyrants.
Yes, this was a splendid theatre production, this Animal Farm. But Ivan Heng did fail in one of his aims: in trying to make the text fully relevant to Singapore today. In setting out his goals for the show, Heng said that “If we’re really serious about remaking Singapore, we should be asking questions about how we are ruled.” But in reality, this play remains too closely associated with its original targets, Stalin and the Soviet Communist Party, to have much relevance to Singapore, a very different society and political system. Putting in some Mandarin dialogue and having the delivery of one speech reflect the mannerisms of a former Singapore leader cannot overcome the vast differences between the society satirized by Animal Farm and the one we live in here. There may be plays a mature Singapore-based company can mount that would ask trenchant questions about the way this country functions, but this is not it. This is a play for Ivan Heng and many of Singapore’s best performers to amplify their talents on an intellectually safe platform.
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QLRS Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002