The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Since it was first published in 1945, George Orwell’s Animal Farm has become one of the most renowned allegories in the English language, still studied in schools to this day, and ever relevant with its hard-hitting truths about the fallibility of humans and the difficulty of subverting established power systems.
Receiving countless stage adaptations, the latest of these is a Tamil adaptation by local theatre company Agam Theatre Lab, and suggests new layers to these long-established characters, and imbuing the tale with a distinctly local take. Co-directed by Subramaniam Ganesh and Karthikeyan Somasundaram (who also adapted the script from P Krishnan), Vilangkuppannai, for the most part, sticks to Orwell’s original story structure and retaining the same key scenes and pivotal points from the novella. What has changed, however, is Agam Theatre Lab’s decision to spotlight and cut certain members of the farm, changing the story’s content and allowing for greater nuance of its characters and their motives.
Among these changes, the most prominent ones would be developing the pigs’ characters beyond simply being stock villains. Napoleon (Karthikeyan Somasundaram), for example, is no longer simply a power-hungry despot, but is shown to display unwillingness to kill his political rival Snowball (Saravanan ). This isn’t a one-off event either, as he displays that same sense of regret for the death of the devoted literal workhorse Boxer (Shaikh Yasin), horrified at the cruelty of selling him off for meat after years of hard work.
In a similar vein, Minimus (Mano Vikneshwaran ), originally a gifted poet and songwriter, is reduced to a dim-witted oaf, who bumbles along doing whatever his fellow pigs tell him, and is often a source of comic relief. The true brains behind Animal Farm then, is Squealer (Udaya Soundari ), whose role is expanded beyond propaganda-spreader, to essentially scheming almost every terrible thing the pigs dream up in their bid to develop and exert full control over the farm, and making Napoleon her puppet ruler. As Squealer, Udaya Soundari never lets go of her aura of evil, to the extent that even when Napoleon has an emotional breakdown over his actions, she simply encourages him to indulge in alcohol, literally forcing it down his throat.
Elsewhere, other farm animals have also been given expanded roles. The crow Moses (Ponkumaran) is now also the narrator, who frequently breaks the fourth wall, while the dog Jessie (Keerthana Kumarasen ) is given an emotionally harrowing role as she watches Napoleon corrupt her own son (Nallu Dinakharan) to become his personal watchdog.
Other characters may not have received any major change, but their characters remain clear as day – Molly (Indu Elangovan) the vain mare who never wants to do any work; Benjamin (Vinith Kumar) the exasperated and cynical donkey; Muriel (T. Sangitha) the hapless goat; and Old Major (Mohan V) the great visionary and idealist, whose appearance, while brief, leaves its impact. And as for the human farmers, both actors Karls Karthikeyan and Akhilesh Dayal are able to portray them as simultaneously blundering in their attempt to re-take the farm, as well as slimy in their dealings, almost always with a hidden scheme hidden behind a greasy smile.
As a whole, the ensemble does a fantastic job of embodying their animal counterparts, in part thanks to their physicality, each feeling so specific and different, but also because of the stellar costuming by Mumtaz Maricar, with prosthetics and masks that transform the actors into almost grotesque half human, half animal hybrids, or leather harnesses symbolising their slavery, and overall, representing the play’s themes of how thin the line is between man and beast. Wong Chee Wai’s set appears simple, but is surprisingly functional and draws us further into the play’s world, reminiscent of an English barn with its wooden walls, and occasionally even surprises with the inclusion of a water-filled trough or the ability to erect a working windmill.
Vilangkuppannai is also fiercely inclusive of Indian culture, choosing to include original lyrics and songs composed for this production (by Nallu Dhinakharan). This is similar to previous English productions of Animal Farm, but it is no mean feat to create entirely new compositions and lyrics for this production alone. In addition, between certain scenes, we end up watching a video where four Indian ‘aunties’ gossip about the going-ons of the farm over tea, a typical scene one would see in Indian dramas that cements Agam Theatre Lab’s role in celebrating and incorporating Indian elements into their work.
The views of Animal Farm are not unlike the worst dystopias – one scene shows the animals desperately pretending everything is going fine when it is anything but, while the Dog even threatens to attack the audience if we do not clap along. The brutal slaughter of both Snowball and Boxer is shown in harrowing detail, remaining with us throughout, but it is the final scene that truly disturbs. As man and pigs (dressed in saris and coats) party it up, we watch helplessly as they completely ignore the plight of the other animals while gorging themselves on booze and loud laughter. As Moses tries to encourage the animals to stage yet another rebellion, each one protests with their own excuse, and we are reminded of how change is easy to lobby for, but difficult to actually implement. History has a nasty habit of repeating itself.
With so many elements, Vilangkuppannai does end up feeling like it has bloated the story somewhat, making for a lengthy 2 hour runtime. But it is to the credit of directors Subramaniam Ganesh and Karthikeyan Somasundaram that they still make the play easy to follow, a clear direction for its cast that brings out the best in each one, with well-choreographed scenes such as the initial revolution, and their ability to handle such a large cast onstage, each member feeling relevant in every scene, eventually concluding the play on a chilling note. Vilangkuppannai shows that 80 years on, Animal Farm remains relevant across time and across cultures, and still has the power to leave us utterly disturbed by the potential for darkness inside every one of us, and how easily power is wrested, only for it to corrupt anew.
Photo Credit: Guan Ziwen
Vilangkuppannai (Animal Farm) ran from 17th to 19th June 2022 at the Esplanade Theatre. More information available here