by Carol Biederstadt
“… dramatic performances are intended not only to entertain, but also to get viewers thinking, and this timely, inspired, and energetic production of Animal Farm surely succeeded at that”
Recent political events have led to a resurgence in the popularity of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Not only did the novel hit the bestseller list again early this year, but dramatic and cinematic productions of the dystopian tale also seem to have been popping up everywhere. Over the past four months, for example, I have attended both a staged performance of 1984 and a screening of Michael Radford’s film 1984, and I am now looking forward to seeing the Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan adaptation that will soon be coming to Broadway’s Hudson Theatre. Without doubt, Nineteen Eighty-Four has been booming in 2017, and while one can never get enough of Orwell’s masterpiece, I had been wishing some dramatic productions of Orwell’s other novels would to be performed in my area, too.
I thus felt a strong pang of temptation when I recently learned that the University of South Carolina’s Department of Theatre and Dance would be presenting Animal Farm at the Drayton Hall Theatre on College Street from April 14 – 22. There was just one problem: South Carolina is not exactly “in my area”, and while the trip would technically be doable over a weekend, I knew that getting there would mean driving until the cows came home. Besides, traveling nearly 700 miles to see a university play seemed more than a bit extravagant. Still, the itch to go nagged at me, and a few days later I found myself in sunny Columbia, the capital of the Palmetto State.
I had booked a ticket for the matinee performance on the final day of the play’s 10-day run, and arriving a day earlier, I decided to locate the theatre in advance. Driving through the wide streets of this stately yet surprisingly sleepy college town, it didn’t take long for me to notice a huge Animal Farm poster hanging above the doors of the imposing Longstreet Theatre. Explaining its grandeur, the theatre, I later read on the U of SC website, had originally been designed as a chapel and auditorium and had been “built along the lines of a Roman temple”. Due to poor acoustics, however, the building ended up serving a variety of more mundane functions, including use as “a military hospital during the Civil War”, until it was renovated in 1976 and “at last found a purpose complementing its architectural grace”. Climbing the massive front staircase for a better look around, I snapped a few photos and looked forward to seeing the inside of this historic building the following day.
The box office is accessed through a rear entrance, and walking toward the back, I was delighted to see a courtyard boasting enormous old trees. Unlike any trees I had seen in the northeast, their trunks were marked by what appeared to be curious sets of eyes, piquing my spirit of inquiry. Despite repeated attempts, however, I was unable to find anyone who could identify them. Noticing few southern accents, I surmised that many of the “locals” in this college town were probably about as local as I was.
Upon returning about a half hour before curtain time the following day, I found the courtyard and the theatre eerily deserted. Double-checking the time and date on a poster hanging at the rear entrance, I realized the play was being staged at the Drayton Theatre, not the Longstreet. Oops! Fortunately, housed in Drayton Hall, which had once served as the University High School Auditorium, the Drayton Theatre was just catty-cornered from the Longstreet, so I didn’t have far to go. Spotting no Animal Farm posters outside Drayton Hall, I forgave myself for the confusion.
An audio track of roosters crowing, songbirds chirping, goats bleating, and the occasional cow mooing greeted me as I entered the theatre, but make no mistake: this production was no Old MacDonald’s Farm. As pointed out by costume designer Valerie Pruett in an interview featured in the playbill, “Animal Farm can get very ‘children’s play’ very quickly, but the material isn’t a children’s play. It’s got a very important message.” Costuming was thus key to preventing the play from appearing juvenile, but creating costumes that would allow for movement and song proved challenging. Pruett was clearly up to the task, however, and her designs, which featured headpieces instead of masks, allowed the actors to assume animal identities without sinking into the puerile.
In keeping with the stage directions in Sir Peter Hall’s adaptation of the novel, the stage, strewn with hay and leaves, was set with only two large props: a tall metal gate from which a “Manor Farm” sign hung standing opposite the façade of Mr. Jones’ house. Inconspicuously squeezed onto stage left, I noted, was a band; this was to be a musical, after all, with lyrics by Adrian Mitchell and music by Richard Peaslee. The cast, under the direction of Professor Stan Brown, was comprised of both MFA in Acting candidates and undergraduates; while technically “students”, most of these spring chickens boasted a long list of previous theatre credits and were as talented and professional as most equity actors I’ve seen. Some standouts for me were Kimberly Braun in the role of Snowball, Libby Hawkins as Napoleon, and Nicolas Stewart as Boxer. Also deserving of praise was Marilyn Guy, who, playing a supporting role as a hen, had mastered the movements and mannerisms of a chicken beyond that which I would have imagined humanly possible.
Adding yet another layer of interest to the performance were the variety of accents employed by the actors, which to my untrained ear seemed to include a South Asian accent, a southern accent, and an Irish accent; in fact, Mollie the horse, played by Gabriela Castillo, even threw in a line of Spanish, which Director Stan Brown explained was “in part, an attempt to suggest that ‘the revolution’ is global.” An expert in voice and speech, Brown says he is “always keen on finding ways to enhance the listening experience,” and without doubt, the variety of accents and dialects were suggestive of both the range of animal vocalizations and the diversity of life on a farm.
Despite the play’s obvious relevance to recent events, however, Brown says that it was “pure coincidence” that Orwell’s barnyard allegory was produced now, noting that the play was one of several titles considered for the 2016-2017 season before the election had even taken place. Says Brown: “The only moment in the entire production which gave a nod to current events was Napoleon’s battle-for-supremacy handshakes with Mr. Pilkington”. Still, Dramaturg Anna Percuoco’s message in the playbill makes it clear that the play’s pertinence was apparent to those involved in its production: “The context of fear-mongering and thinly veiled threats is one which makes Animal Farm so relevant today”. Her words ring true, although paradoxically, not always, I suspect, in the manner those involved with the production would have wished or had intended. I was immediately reminded, for instance, of the Trump-Putin connection and the damning dossier when Squealer denounces Snowball, saying:
Comrades! The most terrible thing has been discovered. We had thought that Snowball’s opposition to Comrade Napoleon was caused by his vanity and ambition. But we were wrong, comrades. Snowball was in league with Jones from the very start. He was Jones’ secret agent all the time. This has been proved by documents which have only just been discovered. To my mind, this explains a great deal, comrades. Did we not see for ourselves how he attempted to get us defeated and destroyed at the Battle of the Cowshed!
My, my! Uncannily apropos, one can only conjecture how Orwell would feel were he able to hear his own words – modified only slightly by Sir Peter Hall – voiced in 2017!
This gets to the heart of it, though, for dramatic performances are intended not only to entertain, but also to get viewers thinking, and this timely, inspired, and energetic production of Animal Farm surely succeeded at that. All in all, I found the play to be well worth the effort it took to get to South Carolina. I will remember this production of Animal Farm for a long time, and you can bet the farm on that.
Animal Farm at the Drayton Hall Theatre, U of SC, April 14 – 22 2017.
Cast Photo Courtesy of University of South Carolina Department of Theatre and Dance
All other photographs by Carol Biederstadt
Uploaded May 2017