ORWELL GOES GANGLAND
Far out in DLR-land, in the wilderness of Urban Regeneration that is the new East-of-East End, Newham City Farm has been since 1977 a place where you can, refreshingly, look at cows and carthorses and rabbits and remind yourself that there is more to the messy-feathery-dungy business of life than high-rise banks and bland groomed city parks. As site-specific theatre goes, it couldn’t be a niftier place for director James Martin Charlton to put on an urban-gangland adaptation of Orwell. With a one-off special permission the story is rewritten by James Kenworth, and local children in rather terrifying facepaint and paper snouts (Ian Teague’s designs) join five professionals.
Nicola Alexis and Andreas Angelis are smarmy pigs with fearsome snouts and hoodies, eyes glittering nastily from the dark paint, Kevin Kinson is the towering, faithful, dim carthorse (Orwell’s Boxer renamed Warrior), Katie Arnstein his sceptical horse best friend, and Samuel Caseley is Hero, eventually betrayed. The original father of the revolution, Old Boy, is a more benign puppet pig, who we first meet in the atmospheric darkness of the barn as the animals plot their bid for justice and freedom.
It’s a promenade performance: you folllow the animals round as, with considerable spirit, they enact the story in shed, field and open space, leaping onto a ping-pong table and erecting a fine wooden windmill for the industrial revolution led by the crafty pigs. The script is gangishly modernized, the slogans not four-legs-good-two-legs-bad but “Four legs badass – two legs Wasteman”. It is also more explicitly violent for today’s youthful sensibilities: “Kill the scum! Cut off his head!” “He’s got a gun!”- “But we’ve got the darkness!”.
Dark it is, at times. But it follows, with correct intelligence, exactly the Orwellian line of political decline. A founding pig, idealistically, tries to educate the lower animals: the sharper swine disrupt the education, feed them exciting slogans and flatter them as heroes of the revolution. Gradually the rules change and those who question that are silenced, mocked, eventually accused of sabotage and called the Enemy Within. Power concentrates in the hands of the pig-elite. The dogs become an obedient, enforcing army. Repressive murder ensues, and is whitewashed.
There is a bit of slightly irritating topical-leftie grandstanding when the pigs talk of “tough decisions” and say “We are all in this together” but the final sacrifice and betrayal of the honest worker Warrior is touchingly done. And, while enjoying the performance (it is a brisk 85 minutes) I have to say that the greatest pleasure was seeing those splendid, spiritedly performing Newham children getting an excellent political education about power, politics, and the need to keep asking questions. I hope a lot of children come to see it.
http://www.animalfarm.ticketsource.co.uk to 24 August
rating : three