Adapted by playwright Ian Wooldridge and directed by Ivan Heng, Wild Rice’s much-anticipated return of Animal Farm to the theatre this year is the twentieth anniversary of its debut in 2002. First seen at Raffles Hotel’s Jubilee Hall, the production has toured New Zealand, Hong Kong, and Australia with a proudly all-Singaporean cast and creative team. It has now come full circle, with new faces in its midst, and an equally redefined zeitgeist to contend with since its last performance in 2011.
George Orwell’s bestselling Animal Farm has remained a staple in many classes and reading lists for a sobering reason. It’s an allegory of Stalinist totalitarianism that has sustained its relevance since its publication in 1945—a reminder of what hasn’t changed. A revolution turns itself inside out. Human nature turns back on itself. The dream of a farm completely run by its inhabitants as equals descends into a nightmare of deceit, despotism, and extreme dogma.
The Animal Farm we see on Wild Rice’s stage is a quick-fire reimagining of the novella. The show heaves and toils beneath the original thirty-thousand word yoke as its characters do; an effort that ultimately does not quite reflect the complexity of its literary legacy.
Image credit: Wild Rice (2022).
The stage is bare and reminiscent of an industrial setting—raw materials feature heavily as a visual motif (unfinished brickwork, variegated wooden floors, a large oxidised metal sheet overlooking the stage). The gritty aesthetic is coupled with costume designer Lai Chan’s sole use of white, red, and black bandage cloths for the performers. Their bodies are streaked with black marks as an additional display of their characters’ servitude, and reduction to their primal roles.
The ensemble—consisting of Erwin Shah Ismail, Tia Andrea Guttensohn, Dwayne Lau, Audrey Luo, Vester Ng, and Suhaili Safari—is uniformly effervescent. Each performer’s bestial physicality is consistent throughout all 105 minutes of the show, and their rapid shifts between different animals with a series of gestures or vocal patterns is mesmerising to watch. The cast’s commitment to the multiple roles they play fostered a chemistry that grew beyond the stage, with instances of direct address which immersed the audience further (for instance, referring to spectators as fellow ‘sheep’).
Actors Matt Grey and Johnny Ng appear as human representatives, memorably playing caricatures of political figures from China and the U.S., in an international press conference organised by the pigs; the famous ‘magic cup’ appears as Napoleon, the porcine leader, mediates between both sides in English and Mandarin.
Image credit: Wild Rice (2022).
The beat of a drum can be a call to action, a stirring, the start of an anthem, and a way to connect with bodies beyond your own. A highlight of the show was the integration of live percussion in the form of musician Riduan Zalani. His playful incorporation of the existing set and the stage as instruments in his design is a testament to his virtuosity, and his soundscapes reverberated within the theatre as they shaped points of tension in each scene. The ensemble responded to these rhythmic interventions effectively, particularly in a purely physical segment detailing the construction of a windmill. The faint scratching of aluminium foil ducts, the diverse musicality of a steel drum often used as a shipping container, the stamping of feet on stage, and laboured breathing were all elements that contributed to a feast for the senses. They manifested the ritualistic seduction of work, ideology, and community all at once. There was however a slight incongruence when various sound cues were heard through electronic speakers, which was a stark contrast to the viscerality of the live music on stage. The playback of pre-recorded audio seemed jarring, and I was at times taken out of the world that the production had drawn us into.
This led me to ponder about the dialectical dramaturgy evident here; mainly, ideas of poor/proletarian theatre and conventional theatricality. There is a tension between the production’s minimalistic stripped-back strategy, and the choices made to subvert that clarity. For instance, it would have been intriguing to see what else could be revealed if live musicianship were the only source of sound on stage.
Wooldridge’s adaptation takes the audience through key moments of the plot—which felt more like a whirlwind overview of the narrative rather than a deeper exploration. The pace of the show doesn’t quite allow it to delve into the intricacies and nuance necessary for full investment from the audience. There was more of an inclination towards comedic interpretations of certain scenes, which perhaps belied the potential multidimensionality of existing emotional arcs. I left the auditorium feeling more light-hearted than introspective; and I wonder if that has masked the urgency of the themes discussed to some extent.
The questions raised in Wild Rice’s production are as salient as ever, considering the social and geopolitical upheaval we see around us today. Both Myanmar’s military coup and the recent collapse of Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa government come to mind; clear examples of real-life ramifications of the tenuous alliance between a state and its populace. There are parallels to be drawn from Singapore’s history as well. Though the events that inspired Animal Farm might seem far removed from the modern day, the show is an attempt to frame them in an accessible way, and to retell the original narrative with references to contemporaneous global/local discourse which a Singaporean audience could relate to. The darker, more sinister realities in the original narrative aren’t as apparent. However, if the intention was to tease absurdities out of the narrative, and allow individuals to engage with the currency and intensity of these conversations beyond the humour in their own time, it is something that the team has achieved.
Do we charge forward into the unknown in search of greener pastures, or do we toe the line for the sake of peace? In his essay Why I Write (1946), Orwell described Animal Farm as the first book in which he attempted “to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole”. Presenting satire and critical inquiry through art is a valuable endeavour—and true to form, Wild Rice has created an experience that one could laugh along with too.