>animal farm by w!ld rice

>reviewed by jeremy samuel

>date: 25 apr 2002
>time: 8 pm
>venue: the jubilee hall, raffles hotel
>rating: ****1/2

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


George Orwell wrote 'Animal Farm' in 1946 as a satire against Stalinist Russia, but his novel can equally be read as a critique of any totalitarian state which uses ideology as a mask for dictatorship. Ian Wooldrige's 1993 adaptation of the book related its lessons to post-Thatcherite Britain, but W!ld Rice's production shows that its message is as universal as the original's.

In director Ivan Heng's words, "The meaning of a classic can rarely be recovered or revived. It must be recreated, reinterpreted for the times." His production is a sophisticated relocation of the farmyard to somewhere that resembles Singapore, so that it resonates with local audiences without ever becoming overtly polemical or stooping to haranguing.

Heng's production is full of the playfulness and visual trickery that has become his signature (a character fires a shotgun in the air and feathers fall from the ceiling, that sort of thing), but succeeds because it never loses sight of the story - a farm that is taken over by animals who expel their incompetent, cruel human master, only to fall again under the dictatorship of the pigs. The gags get annoying at times - when a swan gets shot, it does the 'Dying Swan' - but nothing to the level of the Margaret Chan/cockroach in-jokes in 'Blithe Spirit'.

>>'Heng's production is full of the playfulness and visual trickery that has become his signature'

The large cast of animals is played by just six actors, all skilled physical performers. There is of necessity some streamlining - the dogs and the goat are cut, the audience stands in for the sheep - but even then the cast does an outstanding job, with not a bunny ear or furry suit in sight. Tan Kheng Hua in particular is outstanding. The simplicity of her performance - she convinces as a horse just by holding her hands behind her back and high-stepping as she walks - coupled with its honesty, makes her Clover the emotional centre of the play.

Clover's mate Boxer is played stolidly by Lim Kay Siu, the picture of the hard-working, non-thinking proletariat. On the side of the pigs, Pam Oei is an energetic Squealer, telling lies with the utter conviction of the demagogue. The main pig, Napoleon, is fleshed out by Lim Yu-Beng, who charts his metamorphosis from plain-speaking firebrand to the tough-as-nails elder statesman who won't allow anyone to meddle with the empire he has created. It all reminds you a bit of, well...

This is, in fact, the genius of the production. It never come right out and says it, but there are hints of Singapore everywhere. The elections after Animal Farm is proclaimed a republic could be right out of 'Growing Up' - with only one candidate standing. Statistics are broadcast to convince the animals that they are leading the good life - first through a loudhailer, later with soft music and a mellifluous newscaster's voice. Napoleon's triumphal parade takes place to the strains of 'Stand Up For Singapore', but with a few inversions thrown in so the viewer is left thinking, "That tune sounds like, no, well a little...

There are still hints of jingoism - the annoying reiteration of the phrase "All-Singaporean" in the publicity material, the way the cast compete in their biographical notes to show how Singaporean they are - but on the whole, there is enough restraint to forestall insularity. Even Jim Aitchison's turn as Farmer Jones feels like a dig at colonialism in general, not Singapore's experience of it in particular. This blend of the personal and the general is pleasingly in keeping with the character of the original text.

It is rare to see all the elements of the stage working together as well as they do here. Philip Tan's score is not just a backdrop to the action, it is a part of it - in fact the man himself leaps across the partition at one point to perform an energetic percussion solo against the corrugated iron back wall. Similarly Lai Chan's costumes, Heng's set and Suven Chan's lighting feel completely organic to the production.

ANIMAL FARM is an important step in the development of W!ld Rice. It is a more mature work than anything the company has done so far, eschewing cosy in-jokes for sophisticated, bold political statement. Both entertaining and thought-provoking, this production is a promising start to the company's new season.