Animals at Dublin Theatre Festival: Putting a new skin on Orwell’s fable

Louise White’s play takes Animal Farm as a starting point for examining contemporary privilege and power

“If you’ve come here clutching a copy of Orwell’s novel, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed,” Shadaan Felfeli says as he introduces himself to the small audience gathered in the rehearsal room for Animals, a new theatre production inspired by George Orwell’s 1945 fable Animal Farm. It is an eloquent speech, or it would be if he was not being constantly interrupted by his fellow actors, among them Gabriel Adewusi, who complains about the director’s unconscious racial bias in casting a black actor in roles in which he is destined to die. The roles both men are playing, of course, are animal roles rather than human ones, which makes Adewusi’s commentary even funnier. From the outset of this Tuesday morning rehearsal warm-up, however, it is clear that no one will be wearing a pigskin or a chicken costume in director Louise White’s inspired new production.

Animals marks the first time that White will produce a work at the Dublin Theatre Festival. Previous shows such as Nurse Me (2009), Way Back Home (2013) and Mother You (2015) found a natural home on the experimental fringe circuit. Whether they were engaged with derelict Dublin (2013′s Way Back Home) or autobiographical experiences (2017′s This is the Funeral of Your Life), they were radical in conception and execution, using music, dance and community engagement to tell stories with an urgent contemporary edge.

From the outset, however, White knew Animals had the potential to be something bigger than she had created before. “It is big because of the text, which has an inbuilt audience,” she says. “It’s big because it’s part of the Dublin Theatre Festival, which has an international profile. It’s big because of the budget, which allows us to have live musicians on stage, who bring so much to the theatricality. It’s big because of the cast: six, which is a lot. It is big because of our ambition. So… yeah, no pressure.”

When starting a project, White says, as she explains the origin of Animals, “I usually have a core concept that I am interested in on a personal level and then develop the work around that, but I always find myself crying out for form or structure. So I thought, then, that it was a great idea to adapt a novel. I don’t have to purge my soul and figure out how I feel about the world to make the show. I thought ‘oh, the work will all be already done for me’, but that in itself turned out to be the challenge. On a single page in a novel, so much can happen. People can have a meeting, a gale can come, someone can die — all on one page. How do you determine what to do, what not to do. So, we ended up purging our souls in the end, anyway, because you have to know what it is you want to say about a book; that is the way in.”


White had first become interested in Animal Farm when she was researching her last show, Privilege: The Musical, which premiered at the Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray, Co Wicklow earlier this year. That show was “all about privilege and capitalism, really, and Animal Farm was one of the things I read when I was making it. I was interested in looking at [the book] through the lens of modern-day capitalism, how the rules are constantly shifting for workers. We can be sold a dream idea of a gig economy, where we have access to everything we want in a heartbeat, but what is the cost of that? The people at the top [are still getting] all the money.”

While Orwell was writing the book in response to the emergence of totalitarian states in eastern Europe in the late 1930s and 40s, White cites Noam Chomsky’s reminder that the author was also talking about “the many other ways in which people are controlled without the use of force: how the media, global corporations are all upholding particular ways of being that benefit a very particular section of society: rich white men.”

As the company played with ideas in the rehearsal room, it quickly became clear that Animal Farm was more of a springboard for exploring their own understanding of contemporary capitalism, and the concept for a staging quickly became a “radical reimagining. I just kept on thinking of all those audience members who would arrive clutching their copy of the Penguin Classics edition and thought, ‘we need to be clear that this is not that type of show.’” The cast (Felfeli, Adewusi, Gemma Kane, Lucy Cray-Miller and Dimitri Vinokurov) and musicians (Elis Czerniack and Dylan Lynch) came into the room as equals, and they quickly decided that they would have to take an abstract approach to Orwell’s animal metaphor. “Having people dressed up in sheep and pig costume — that felt very distancing and not accessible,” White says, “so we decided we wouldn’t take on animalistic affectations but would create a conceit whereby the performers would be themselves stepping in and out of the animal world as if it was a normal day in their life. [The performers] came up with a lot of the content — one of the musicians might suggest something and we will try it and it will go in. I suppose [as director] at the start I was facilitating their ideas. Now we know where we are going I have fallen into a more traditional role, where I am looking on, polishing it all up.”

The big question the collaborators struggled with as they put a shape on their material was “how to get metaphor back in. If you take out Orwell’s animals — the fable aspect — the material is very heavy, very earnest.” What they came up with was the guiding principle of “play” — “to have as much theatricality in it as possible. To give the audience a wild ride. People really don’t want to be told what to think, so the challenge is how you can get the message through. How do you talk about [the capitalist predicament] effectively.”

Basically, White concludes, “you have to give them a rare old time.”

Animals runs from September 14-16 at Everyman Palace Theatre, Cork and October 5-8 at the Samuel Beckett Theatre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival

Sara Keating

Sara Keating

Sara Keating, a contributor to The Irish Times, is an arts and features writer