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Politics is Theatre

By Ho Rui An

The programme booklet of W!LD RICE's revival of Animal Farm features a quote which appears strikingly appropriate for the occasion. The words are attributed to none other than the sage lips of our Minister Mentor himself:

"One must understand human nature. I have always thought that humanity was animal-like. The Confucian theory was man could be improved, but I'm not sure he can be. He can be trained, he can be disciplined."

In the context of a play where humans trot around the stage as animals, the irony of the statement can kill. Through this little assertion on the inherent animality of human kind, MM Lee appears to be positioning himself as the authority who stands apart from (and aloft) the rest of human nature as its custodian and disciplinarian. These words become unbearably ironic in the context of a stage adaptation of George Orwell's cautionary tale on the corruptibility of power. For if we were to go by the message of Animal Farm, our minister mentor himself would actually represent the very apotheosis of this animality he so abhors. Basing our judgments on the quote alone, the explicit denigration of humanity's capacity for rational thought sounds suspiciously similar to the rhetorical strategies of the authoritarian Napoleon of Animal Farm. Desire for power, as Orwell would want us to know, is the ultimate expression of animality.

The classic tale of Animal Farm needs no introduction. Within a barnyard of animals, we witness the stock characters that continue to perpetuate this cycle of tyranny that is reenacted time and again in all parts of the world. It starts with a revolution which overthrows an oppressive regime. Ideals for the future become institutionalised as rules for governance which over time, become the instruments for a new autocratic regime.

The stage adaptation written by Ian Wooldridge and directed by Ivan Heng, maintains the spirit and message of the original work. But naturally, it would inevitable for comparisons to be drawn to Orwell's perennial classic and it is understandably difficult for any play to match the standards of a book that resides in the literary stratosphere. But given the disparate form of written fiction and theatre, it would perhaps be more meaningful to compare the works not in terms of which is superior to the other, but in terms of the different qualities of the parable each medium brings across. While the stage adaptation lacks the tragic, sobering and revelatory quality of the book as well as the character depth that is more easily achievable in the length of a novel, W!LD RICE's Animal Farm possesses the urgency that theatre best delivers. And while the book has an emotional resonance that is very much unparalleled, the stage adaptation actually manages to bring out the dystopian aspect of Orwell's tale with a more striking clarity. The world of Animal Farm suddenly becomes even more degenerate, decadent and bizarre than we previously know it, even as it continues to reflect the realities we are all too familiar with. In this light, Animal Farm fulfills the essential purpose of an adaptation -  to defamiliarise and resensitise us to the stories, events and characters which we think we already know and consequently enabling us to see them in new perspectives.

We all know that Orwell's tale was written to reflect the events leading to the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union. But in the case of a live performance, a constant negotiation between the work and its performance site would inevitably occur. The play's run in Hong Kong earlier in March incited the audience to contemplate the relationship between China and Hong Kong. Naturally, in Singapore, the ruling party would come to mind. In fact, many members of the audience probably came with the expectation of being able to identify explicit or implicit references to the local political scene throughout the play. The original story has such universal applicability that anyone would be compelled to assign members of the cabinet to each of the pigs in Animal Farm.

Adaptation; not Parody

While the play doesn't quite fulfill our fantasy of seeing incarnations of our political rulers squealing away as the pigs of Animal Farm, I'm actually glad it doesn't. While there are some explicit references scattered here and there, the play doesn't deliberately tweak the details of the narrative in order for it to become a perfect, schematic mirror image of local political realities. Instead, the "references" emerge more as coincidences, which works brilliantly as both as testament to the enduring universality of the story and as a narrative strategy that creates connections to contemporary realities in a way that appears more natural and open-ended. The play would be undeniably tiresome and preachy if it were a mere laundry list of references and allusions.

In a way, such a strategy also enables the active participation of the audience in terms of negotiating the various connections in terms of our own experience and knowledge. And the opportunities for doing so are abound. For instance, Napoleon's justifications for the various entitlements reserved for the ruling class of pigs sound uncannily similar to the government's impassioned defence of rising ministerial pays. It's always the same rhetoric of exceptionalism, isn't it?

Indeed, the most striking similarity of Napoleon's Animal Farm to Singapore's socio-political reality is the exploitation of rhetoric to create an illusion of authority and instill a culture of fear. In Animal Farm, we see an autocratic leader who always speaks of change in alarmist terms. In order to amass support for policy change, the return of the ousted Farmer Jones is always invoked in an attempt to frighten the animals into submission. When questioned, the pigs brandish their revolutionary credentials as rhetorical muscle, often pointing to their past achievements or revising history to create false ones. When accused of deviating from their original ideological aspirations, they discredit the past, quietly alter the Seven Commandments and feebly attempt to "recontextualise" ideology in terms of contemporary realities. Revolutionary ideals are apparently no longer relevant in a post-revolutionary age. Doesn't that sound incredibly reminiscent of a certain befuddling speech by a particular cabinet member who discredited the pledge as "aspiration"? Is politics nothing more than theatre?

The critical disjunct between rhetoric and reality is conveyed towards the end of the play through a compelling use of irony. We see Napoleon's mouthpiece, Squealer declaring an increase in the general quality of life on the farm and supporting its claims with a list of questionable statistics. But what is articulated is completely incongruous to the actual plight of the animals who appear on the brink of collapse. And this question on quality of life bears particular resonance within Singapore. Bombarded by a continual stream of conflicting statistical data, it is question that hardly anyone can answer with definite certainty.

The power of a theatrical presentation lies in its ability to exaggerate and dramatise. Animal Farm forces a direct confrontation with the bare facts that are often obscured by a performance of enlightened statesmanship by highlighting the sheer artifice of the facade. The play violently tears down the benign appearance of the system and exposes politics as theatre, denaturalising the perceived state of affairs and unearthing the varied tools of oppression that are so embedded within the everyday they go unnoticed. As a member of a Singaporean crowd, one is reacquainted with the language of tyranny within our daily lives.

Of course, much credit has to go to the wonderful ensemble cast for creating the energy that is so essential to the play. Not forgetting that it is extremely physically demanding work that they are doing here. I'm particularly amazed by how they manage to sustain such acrobatic agility throughout the run of the play. It is also interesting to watch them transmogrify into all sorts of different animals throughout the play. Pam Oei is effusive and spot on in her portrayal of Squealer, the overzealous mouthpiece. Denise Tan entertains as the spoiled and vain Mollie while Gani Abdul Karim brings across the tragic character of Boxer with much conviction. It is Lim Yu Beng's Napoleon that however comes across as bland and lacking the menace that exemplifies the insidious nature of corrupting power. This is partly a flaw of the writing which seems to rush through Napoleon's character transformation from revolutionary to tyrant. The highlight of the cast is Yeo Yann Yann in her emotional delivery of Clover. While the death of Boxer lacks the heartwrenching hit in the gut that the novel delivers, it is the quiet sadness and horror conveyed by those luminous eyes of Yeo that brings out the tragedy of that pivotal scene.

Dramatisation through Decor

The play also succeeds in its visual aspect, particularly with the set design leaving a rather strident impression of a dystopian world that appears both familiar and bizarre. The use of air-conditioning ducts (an homage to Cherian George's The Air-conditioned Nation) as representative props in particular, brought out the mechanical and institutionalised dehumanisation at work in most totalitarian states. The choice of eschewing animal suits and leaving the cast parading as themselves in minimal costumes accentuates the decadence and the animal-like nature of humanity. This is complemented by an edgy, percussion-based soundscape which imparts a contemporary feel to the play, although the interjections of pop songs can feel a little jarring at times.

Like the novel, Animal Farm seems to end on a fatalistic note. The final scene of the play is so surreal it even comes across as a little haunting with the multiple layers of irony at work. The pigs played by humans have been successfully hominised, taking on the gait and apparel of humans and engaging in polite social chatter with the real human counterparts at a press conference - the ultimate expression of performative statesmanship. As the audience, we begin to see ourselves in Clover who looks on in hapless incomprehension. Her eyes seem to ask, "What has happened to Animal Farm?"

This is probably a question we all need to ask ourselves.

Animal Farm is currently running at the Drama Centre Theatre from 21 April to 8 May 2010

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