Arts Review Singapore Theatre

★★★★☆ Review: Animal Farm by Wild Rice

New ending to Orwell’s classic further blurs the line between man and beast.

For centuries, humans have evolved from prehistoric creatures to the hyper-intelligent dominant species on Earth today. But in a world filled with constant war and animosity, one can’t help but think if somewhere inside our modern minds, there still lies a hint of that original animal instinct, and whether we truly can differentiate ourselves from mere beast.

Now in its third run since 2002, Wild Rice’s critically-acclaimed adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm returns to the stage once more, this time with a new cast, a new space, and with a brand new ending. Directed by Ivan Heng and adapted by Ian Wooldridge, Wild Rice’s Animal Farm is, for the most part, a faithful adaptation of the original novel, as the animals on Manor Farm rise up in rebellion when they decide that they’ve been mistreated by their human masters for long enough. But in establishing a new, animal-ruled order, they soon discover that there are some realities that may be even worse than they could ever have imagined.

While Animal Farm was originally written as an allegory for the Russian Revolution, Wild Rice makes it abundantly clear that their version is meant as a parallel to Singapore. In its opening scene, the cast arrive onstage dressed as various Singaporean archetypes, from a frontline healthcare worker to a FoodPanda delivery rider, a student to a construction worker. But as if struck by an invisible force, falling to the ground each time musician Riduan Zalani (dressed in white pants and shirt, perhaps alluding to the ruling party) hits the drums, they eventually convulse and release ‘the animal within’ as they shed their clothes to reveal the red and skin-tone, undergarment-like costumes underneath, with black patches and stripes on their bare bodies as if to signify having regressed to a more primal, tribalistic state. There is no need for prosthetics or tails to make Wild Rice’s message clear – we are more akin to animals than we like to think.

At the beginning of the play, there is a distinctly anti-colonial interpretation Wild Rice takes, with the animals tearing off their master Mr Jones’ (Matt Grey) clothes in the midst of their revolt, revealing a Union Jack on his boxers that calls to mind Singapore’s past as a British colony. In the ensuing power vacuum, the pigs, considered the most intelligent of the animals, take governance into their own trotters. It is from this point perhaps, is where the parallels between Singapore and Animal Farm become much more blurred, and becomes a more general allegory for the dangers of leaving power unchecked, as it charts the pigs’ gradual corruption, their use of propaganda, and increasingly brutal threats of violence to pull the wool over the other animals’ eyes and maintain their chokehold on the rest of the farm. What is most terrifying is that even in watching their comrades slain or the brutally unfair working conditions for the ‘working class’, the animals constantly cling to the idea that life would be worse with Jones back on the farm, and repress their suspicions and their protests for fear of punishment.

Animal Farm‘s set, designed by Ivan Heng, comprises only a metallic, zinc-sheet like backdrop that gives way to a ‘brick’ wall showcasing the seven commandments the animals must abide by (given the sense of being handwritten through intentional misspellings and reversed letters). This then allows director Ivan to place full emphasis on the performance space, and shining the spotlight on his ensemble of well-cast actors as they embody their demanding animal roles through physical theatre. While they play multiple roles, there is a fluidity to their performance and distinct physical cues that let the audience immediately know what animal they have transitioned to, such as an arm sticking straight up to represent long-necked geese, to the canter and trotting of horses, standing upright and proud.

Individually, Dwayne Lau plays the dual, contrasting roles of Old Major and Boxer, going from aged, reverent sage to unintelligent, yet devoted carthorse, bringing out sympathy for his naivete. Audrey Luo, as fellow carthorse Clover, similarly evokes our pity for her as the voice of reason, always breaking up fights and always bested by the pigs each time she attempts to point out a breach of the commandments. Erwin Shah Ismail, while not as memorable as the pig Snowball, turns into a star when he embodies old donkey Benjamin, changing his voice to resemble a jaded uncle, his facial expressions sour and pessimistic as he ambles about onstage.

As the two primary villains, Vester Ng and Suhaili Safari manage to differentiate their roles enough to make them feel distinct and unique onstage, both given roles contrary to their usual casting. As chief propagandist Squealer, Suhaili subverts her usually joyous, smiley roles with a wicked streak by feeding the other animals her lies and altered histories. Vester on the other hand, may not be physically imposing in person, but in this role, exudes an almost evil aura, selective in his words yet striking fear into others each time he tightens control through new measures. And of the cast, it is Tia Andrea Guttensohn who seems to have the most fun as vain Mollie, putting a spring in her every step and a mischievous, childish energy to how she taunts Boxer with her intelligence. When embodying the raven Moses, Tia becomes more of a deluded doomsday prophet as she spouts praises and rapturous songs about Sugarcandy Mountain.

Riduan Zalani is outstanding as Animal Farm’s. musician and sound designer, providing live incidental music for almost every scene. While he may not technically be on ‘stage’ in each scene, a cursory glance at his spot behind the percussion set will see him always alert, paying attention to every action happening before him before confidently picking up his next instrument and delivering on sound. At one point, to portray a massive storm, Riduan even gets up and begins to roll an empty oil drum around the stage while playing it like a drum, a theatrically riveting moment that gives him the spotlight and the recognition he deserves for his performance.

There is a distinct Wild Rice flavour felt throughout the play, most keenly seen from Ivan Heng’s deliberate introduction of pop songs in the midst of the play. There are times this works, such as Nancy Sinatra’s ‘These Boots Were Made For Walkin’”, going from song of empowerment to chilling anthem of oppressor, as we watch Napoleon, on two feet for the first time, literally stepping on the other animals’ backs as they lay down to form a bridge for him. At other times this instead interrupts the build up of tension and horror, such as how when Snowball is attacked by Napoleon’s dogs, rather than inspiring fear, the use of Baha Men’s ‘Who Let The Dogs Out’ makes us unsure what to feel in that moment.

What is most unique about this production is in the final scene, which completely changes Orwell’s original ending. Rather than watching the pigs playing cards and getting drunk with the other farmers, Napoleon now dons a suit, and invites not just another farmer, but also a political leader to discuss the future of Animal Farm. With the appearance of a certain ‘magic cup’, Wild Rice is making it clear that this is a jab at Singapore’s own politics, possibly passing commentary on how we maintain the guise of a First World Country while hiding exploitative and cruel practices behind closed doors. While this does feel somewhat shoehorned, the play still closes on a powerful note as Clover is forced to accept a sugar cube from a human, driving home the fact that even after all the suffering and pain they’ve endured, nothing has really changed.

With this new staging of Animal Farm, Wild Rice has produced a play that echoes the message they’ve been pushing forth in recent plays – that we must be aware when those in power have too much of it, and to realise at what point we have become more sheep than human, and wake up from wilful ignorance of the injustices in our own homes. We may not yet live in an exploitative totalitarian state, but should we ever find that we are on the verge of one, it may already be too late, lest we think and act with independently and for ourselves.

Photo Credit: Wild Rice

Animal Farm runs from 18th August to 10th September 2022 at the The Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre. Tickets available here

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