‘Pig Brother’ Is Watching You

Sixty Years’s Later, Orwell’s Animal Farm at the International Theatre is Still Disturbingly Relevant

On a mild September evening, I make my way to the quaint International Theatre in Vienna’s 9th District, my first visit to an English-speaking theatre in this city, and I am looking forward to the experience.

As we have a pre-performance drink in the theatre’s adjoining cafe, my companion and I discover a picture of a 1980 production front and center between the endless rows of production stills of shows gone by.

The still shows a handful of actors dressed all in black and holding papier-mâché heads of pigs and sheep, and I secretly hope that the current production does not make use of the animal concept in such a basic way. We are definitely curious as to how director and designer Jack Babb well adapt George Orwell’s 1945 allegory of Stalinist Russia for a modern audience.

I need not have worried. For one hour and twenty minutes, we are witnesses to the failed revolution at the Animal Farm and shown once again that a society’s ideologies can be changed and manipulated by those with power. The farm soon fails to uphold its fundamental maxims, as slowly “All animals are equal” transforms to “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others” and the pigs into the supposed enemy, the humans, the other animals subjected to their rule of terror.

All actors in the play wore overalls, masks, and bare feet | Photo: Jack Babb

Much thought has been put into whom Orwell had in mind when he created his characters. The self-proclaimed leader, aptly named Napoleon, was directly compared to Joseph Stalin, in a letter Orwell wrote to his publisher.

Producer Marilyn Close chose not to make much use of props or changing sets. The costumes, designed by Gloria Sattél and Laura Mitchell, are uniform, consisting of grey overalls and a dark blue T-shirt, worn with bare feet. Both the bare stage and the plain costumes emphasize the universality of the play’s moral: This is a situation that can happen anywhere, at any time, to anyone, and is not bound by setting or era.

Napoleon’s costume changes as his intentions absolute rule become more apparent – initially adding shoes, he soon differentiates himself with a blazer, a cap, and in the end a complete officer’s uniform, an evolution from one of the Good Guys to the poster child of the Bad Guys. Red lighting illuminates his atrocities, including the pointless slaughter of revolutionaries whom he declares to be enemy spies.

The obvious star of the evening, garnering the most laughs and even eliciting a hoot of appreciation from a teenaged girl during the curtain call, was Eric Lomas as the Narrator. Dressed in an impeccable black pinstriped suit, his hair slicked back and his face expressionless, Lomas embodied the quintessential English chap. From his seat in the corner of the stage, he is the common thread through the play, dry British humor at its best. Throughout, he interacts with the story in small ways, becoming irritated as he conveyed the sheep’s incessant rendering of the maxim “Four legs good, two legs baaaaad,” as well as his comment that the Cat (Roxanne Carless) was indeed a “good kitty” made him a pleasure to watch.

Jack Babb’s portrayal of Squealer was just as dazzling, as the character whom Napoleon appoints to spread his propaganda reminiscent of Goebbels and Molotov. He is so sleek, so smooth and eloquent, that one can see how the animals could have believed his many absurd excuses; he is the sleazy guy you love to hate.

In his most convincing scene, Babb tearfully passes on the news of the cart horse Boxer’s death to the characters. His body language perfectly depicting that of a mourning comrade, he continues to explain that the reason Boxer had been transported to the hospital in a van of a horse butcher was merely that the vet had purchased said van second hand. Boxer, he claimed, had passed away under the best medical care available.

An honorable mention also goes to Gregory J. Nelsen, who excelled as both Moses the raven and the loveably dimwitted Boxer. As Moses, Nelsen embodies a preacher who praises the wonder that is Sugar Candy Mountain, a place where everyone will one day end up. The audience is transported to a gospel church on a hot Sunday in the South, to the bleating of a hallelujah choir of sheep. As Boxer, Nelsen’s deep voice and buff but gentle exterior communicate the essence of his character – loveable but slow.

Ian Leonard as Napoleon is less convincing. It is unclear whether it was Leonard’s intention to portray this mastermind in a nervous manner, or if the actor himself was paralyzed with stage fright. Either way, that certain je ne sais quoi, the quality that Napoleon must exhibit to manipulate all other animals and make himself ruler of Animal Farm is missing from Leonard’s performance.

Leaving the theatre, it was impossible to avoid the parallel with today’s world, and how tragically relevant Orwell’s story remains across time. Napoleon and Squealer use fear to manipulate their underlings into doing what they want them to do, as citizens around the world are bullied into following their leaders’ demands.

It is frightening how quickly the powers that be can lead people into such a deplorable state and still leave them believing that their hard work will pay off in the end.

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