Review: Animal Farm – shake and stir theatre company: Empire Theatre (Toowoomba)

Images: Stephen Henry

shake and stir are no strangers to Queensland theatre and, now that they’ve completed two national tours, are becoming familiar to audiences Australia-wide.

Last week I caught up with their latest production, a re-staging of their 2011, award-winning production of Animal Farm.  Adapted by Nick Skubij from George Orwell’s 1944 satirical novel about the horrors of totalitarianism under Stalin and directed by Michael Futcher, this production includes Nelle Lee, Ross Balbuziente, Tim Dashwood, Bryan Probets and Mr Skubij.

Toowoomba’s gorgeous Empire Theatre was the 27th venue in what has been a 5-month national tour for the company and, as you might expect of a well-run in production, the full house of young and old (over 1300) on Thursday night was treated to a polished, tight as a drum performance by the ensemble. I’ve made no secret elsewhere of my love of theatricality in the service of great story-telling, and this production exemplifies it with economy and clarity.

My theatre companion on the night, a drama teacher, was thrilled that her students would be buzzing ‘probably for a month’ after what they’d seen that night. At the Q&A after the show, many stayed back to talk through the way the company had staged Orwell’s political fable. A couple of older friends who knew the novel well found it “… dark, frightening, compelling – just the way Orwell intended.” It was a terrific night of theatre with a first-rate production of physical story-telling at its best.

With this production shake and stir confirm themselves as some of the leading exponents of physical theatre.

Literary adaptations to the stage can be fraught. With an eye to the narrative’s mainline and the time constraints of theatre performance, the key to success lies in knowing what to cut and what to keep and not destroy the original’s integrity; it’s a tricky business. Then it’s about creating and seamlessly blending physical action with dialogue. When there’s a cast of characters that runs into the dozens, assigning roles and watching the traffic of the stage becomes another issue. Animal Farm is a skilfully directed, smart adaptation which moves the action along, linking the story’s episodes via direct narration.

This is high energy, animated narrative; it comes at you at full tilt and maintains the pace for a full 90 minutes. With this production shake and stir confirm themselves as some of the leading exponents of physical theatre. The action and the intensity never flag for a second. Indeed, Ross Balbuziente noted in the post-show Q&A that there is no down time for the cast during the show: “It seems from the time we announce that there had been a rebellion at Manor Farm to the time we take our curtain call that about 2 minutes have gone by.”

tactics_shakeandstirJosh McIntosh‘s set of beautifully-designed farm buildings – one of the best I’ve seen from him – filled the Empire’s big main stage but would have needed clever design (in units) to fit much smaller venues on tour. Lit by Jason Glenwright, it comprises farm-buildings, doors, ledges, ramps and hidey-holes which make a perfect play space for the actors, enabling quick changes, entrances and exits that assist the rhythm and momentum of the narrative. Guy Webster‘s sound-track composition is another successful key feature in the structural and atmospheric design of Animal Farm.

Everything in this production focuses on the central narrative; every element is geared towards supporting the story and its telling via the central medium of the actor’s body. Characterisation is strong and clear – a favourite of mine is Bryan Probet’s Squealer – but, really, ensemble acting craft is the hallmark of this production.

ensemble acting craft is the hallmark of this production

This production by shake and stir brings Orwell’s terrible fairytale to the stage with style, wit and skill. Don’t miss it.

Brisbane’s return season of Animal Farm begins at QPAC’s Cremorne Theatre from 15th May. Details are here.

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