Theatre Review: Animal Farm

Alone on stage, actor Renato Musolino (taking on the roles of over 20 characters from Orwell’s Animal Farm) uses only his face and voice to signal changes of character while the spotlight remains tightly trained on his visage.

By


Presented by State Theatre Company South Australia
Reviewed 22 March 2019

The lights go out. Trump’s voice speaks through a radio. Then a disembodied heads greets the Animal Farm audience, reciting the opening lines of George Orwell’s familiar parable. 

Alone on stage, actor Renato Musolino (taking on the roles of over 20 characters from Orwell’s Animal Farm) uses only his face and voice to signal changes of character while the spotlight remains tightly trained on his visage. In a flash, he contorts his eyes, mouth, jaw, and nose so that no trace remains of the introduction’s somber narrator. Without the use of costume, light changes, makeup or wigs, Musolino successfully slips from human commentator, to ageing, “but still majestic-looking”, pig.

This “simple and direct” production of Animal Farm is director Geordie Brookman’s final production for the State Theatre as Artistic Director. Brookman’s choice to stage Animal Farm, with its analysis of the human foibles that repeatedly give rise to authoritarian power, fits his artistic desire to incite audience reflection upon the modern world when leaving the theatre. The link between our modern, post-truth world, and the shifting foundation of lies that characterises the “Animalism” of the farm is undeniably powerful. Orwell’s novella, which was an incisive critique of 1940’s authoritarian governments, remains, alarmingly, as relevant now as it was back then. 

That being said, I suspect that for many of us the story is familiar, while its anti-authoritarian concerns are already at the centre of much liberal political news and debate. 

So why reiterate a well-known point? What makes this adaptation special?

In essence, it is Brookman, Musolino, and the production team’s brilliantly restrained stagecraft. The team skillfully brings to life a colourful story containing 20+ characters through deliberate, ascetic use of paired-back motions, deceptively simple lighting and sound, and absolutely no changes to the staging of the set. To top off the constricting parameters of the play (which also include no costume changes, no props beyond a red bandana, and of course, one man taking on all roles), the show is staged on an angled, elongated platform that concentrates Musolino’s steps, so that he can really only move backwards or forwards on his abstract, personalised catwalk. 

The effect of these choices is that each lighting change, each flicker of the eyes, and every inflection of voice is noted and amplified. The distinction between pig and horse is unmissable, even when signalled simply by slight adjustments in posture and hand contortion. This characteristic of considered restraint, in which sparseness concentrates all attention to that which is most essential, compliments the apparent simplicity of the Orwell’s tale. The inessential is edited out, so that the story and its message is conveyed as directly as possible.  

The staging leaves Adelaide actor Musolino with nowhere to hide. The audience scrutinises his face and attentively notes each change in tonal cadence. He is a tremendously dedicated performer, delivering a show that is so precisely performed that each of his movements seem to form part of a dance-like choreography in which every detail must hit its mark. In such a paired-back production, it is absolutely essential that every moment be perfectly delivered. 

Happily, according to the audience of the production’s opening night, that demanding goal is achieved. Animal Farm opened at the Space Theatre on March 22nd to an enthusiastic standing ovation. 

Reviewed by Ana Obradovic

Venue: Space Theatre – Adelaide Festival Centre
Season:  21 Mar — 30 Mar 2019
Duration:  84 minutes (no interval)
Tickets:  SOLD OUT

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