As Guy Masterson prepares to perform his one-man adaptation of Animal Farm for the last time, he tells Joanne Savage about its enduring relevance
It was George Orwell’s searing allegorical satire of Stalinist Russia, a barnyard ‘fairytale’ of the abuses of propaganda and psychological conditioning. At its centre was that awful, timeless truth, a truth that arguably still lies at the jackbooted heart of even the most democratic and liberal society: 'All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.'
More than any other writer of the 20th century, Orwell was attuned to the relationships of exploitation, oppression and control on which human, and indeed animal, societies are built. Using lucid, simple language, he argued that inequality, hypocrisy and greed will always surface where the four-legged or the two-legged gather. His writing despairs over the impossibility of an egalitarian utopia.
His book Animal Farm shows how even ostensibly communist revolutionaries end up oppressing the masses by forgetting their ideals when power is gained, so that the old structures of exploitation are reinstated. In the last analysis, proffered Orwell, there will always be an underclass worked to the bone while the rich stuff themselves with foie gras and splurge on designer shoes, just as down on Animal Farm the pigs drink whisky, snaffle all the apples and crack the whip – all power at their trotters – as the humble workhorses go hungry.
Napoleon the pig becomes head honcho once Jones the farmer is ousted after the revolution on Animal Farm. He presides over an increasingly hard-working community of animals. Squealer, another pig, is chief propagandist and uses brainwashing techniques to ensure control. The sheep are stupid and easily led, meaning they are used to uphold the Seven Commandments decreed by the pigs.
Decent, hardworking and impressionable animals like Boxer the horse put their faith in the system created and keep to hard graft and obedience, believing it is for the common good. His moments of discontent are dispelled by two pieces of poignantly deluded thinking: ‘I must work harder’ and ‘Napoleon is always right’. Gramophone minds absorb the dominant messages of the ruling class with alarming ease and the price of siding with the sheep - neglecting to be independently minded - is high.
Actor, producer and director Guy Masterson doesn’t set himself an easy task in bringing his adapted version of Orwell’s barnyard polemic to the stage. Even more so because the Welshman is playing all the parts, from the dopey sheep to the manipulative, sadistic pigs, the oppressed horses, the hens, the donkey and the cat – the whole teeming farmyard.
'Orwell was an incredibly prescient writer, a man who thought wildly into the future,' commented Masterson ahead of his final performance of Animal Farm at the Theatre At The Mill, Newtownabbey.
'I have always been particularly interested in the way the political right took Animal Farm and used it to disparage socialism rather than seeing it for what it was – which is a critique of the abuse of the ideals of socialism. It continues to inspire me because it is a message against any kind of totalitarianism, and against any kind of abuse of the mandate of government.'
When Masterson first took Animal Farm to the stage, Thatcherism had taken society more and more to the right. He was angered by the disingenuous promises made by the Conservatives when they took power, and felt the parallels with Orwell’s duplicitous pigs were pertinent.
'Equally though, as the political spectrum has changed, Animal Farm is still relevant,' Masterson argues. 'Look at how Labour started to abuse their mandate towards the end. Who knows, in five years time will our Con-Lib government be doing what they said they were going to do?'
The English thespian is also accutely aware of the political situation in Northern Ireland, and admits that he is both excited to be staging his final performance here and perturbed by the current political situation. 'In a Northern Irish context,' he asks, 'have politicians kept the promises they made during the Peace Process?'
Masterson first performed the strenuous piece of theatre in 1995 and has taken it all over the world. 'It’s like a dance, the physical movements and then all the vocal alterations,' he says of each performance. 'It’s frenetic, but it’s easy for the audience to follow because the physicality is so broadly drawn.
'This is the last time I will ever, ever perform Animal Farm in the UK,' says Masterson, somewhat relieved by the declaration. 'I may need an ambulance afterwards,' he quips. 'I have to hang up the trotters after this because the performance is physically difficult on me now that I am 49. But I'll miss my favourite character, Squealer, because he’s the ultimate spin doctor – he’s so much fun to do and so evil.'
When the ruling pigs decide to change their beliefs and adopt obverse positions to those held when they came to power, Squealer is the Machiavellian master of lies, spinning webs of untruth with astonishing cunning and poise. All the Commandments of Animalism are amended with his help until history is rewritten and established facts are relentlessly denied.
When astute animals like Clover point out that accepted truths have been changed, Squealer is there with his mean little eyes, insisting 'that never happened my dear, your memories are mistaken'. This was, for Orwell, akin to the Soviet government's tweaking of communist theory to make it more a reformation of capitalism than a replacement. Power corrupts its agents until they eat their words. The wisdom of Animal Farm, Orwell’s work ‘contre Stalin’ remains undimmed by the years.
Guy Masterson will perform Animal Farm at the Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey on October 14.