A dark, cold night in February, driving along the road that inspired Chris Rea. The A666 heading to Blackburn, Lancashire and its four thousand rather small holes. Or rather to Darwen Library, a grand civic building opened by Andrew Carnegie in 1908, to see Guy Masterson’s one man performance of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
Inside the hall a group of about a hundred shuffled into their seats, beverages in hand. The pint of Fallon’s Dark Prince slides down as I get comfortable. The adaptation was premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1995. Masterson has been performing the one man show ever since. I had been uncertain what to expect. In my darker, more cynical moments, as we wound our way through the Pendle hills, I recalled the one-man dance recital by Dude Lebowski’s landlord. One way or another it was going to be interesting.
The props are kept to a minimal. A square box (Masterson online instructions offer an alternative as a bail of hay), lighting and a series of barnyard sound effects. Without any build up, other than a cacophony of farm yard sounds, Masterson takes the stage. His performance was superb. It could easily get confusing about which animal is taking centre stage. But Masterson’s ability to personify the characters was bbbb by simple gestures, a definable facial expression and regional accent keeps the narrative flowing smoothly and coherently. Switching to his conversation role as the narrator, engaging with the audience and chucking in a few topical references to David Cameron and Nick Clegg.
Because Orwell reduced his ideas to the simple interactions of animals on a farm something that time will alter very little the allegory works just as well now as it did in 1945. There is nothing anachronistic about Animal Farm. The principles behind the narrative arc lend themselves to any political doctrine. The bogeyman of Snowball, justifying excess and limitations on freedom, was perhaps never more pertinent what with the War on Terror and all that. But it has always been a book that leaves me depressed. But depressed in a good way, if that’s possible. My thoughts prompted by the simmering anger behind the parable. I remember when I first read the novel years ago, throwing my copy across the room when Boxer was retired to the slaughter house. Masterson’s performance re-enforced that anger. I’m not sure if the animals have something to do with that. It’s as if we get a heightened sense of emotion due to the anthropomorphic sentiments that the book prompts. It’s like crying when Bambi’s mother got shot by that thick twat of a hunter. We look on the microcosm of the animals’ world with partisanship in a way we seem unable or unaware to look at our own world.
Satirical humour is a difficult line to walk. The balloon should be pricked, not have a smiley face marked on it. British satire unlike its European counterpart with its ability to humiliate its victims or the malicious partisanship of the Americans is relatively cosy. It serves to deflect our own anger as opposed to bring down governments or fuel resentment. We turn what should be the objects of scorn into figures of fun. Look at Boris Johnson, for pity’s sake. The popular attitude is one of patronizing indulgence (more fool us). Shaking our heads at his bumbling crassness and mis-timed comments. He’s harmless is Boris. A sort of more politically correct Duke of Edinburgh. Think about it, how many other politicians do we call by their first name? Credit it where it’s due, the wool has well and truly been pulled and that has to be one of the best Public Relations successes of recent times. A sort Eddie The Eagle’ Edwards of British Politics with the mute sexual charm of Martin Clunes. Didn’t you just love him in Doc Martin? Easily dismissing as unimportant his privileged upbringing and the boorish arrogance of his Bullingdon Club days. People don’t understand any more now than they did in 1945. Animal Farm is not simple entertainment. We are the porkers, the sheep, Boxer, Snowball and even Napoleon. But we sit back content to be the audience. To allow the Napoleons, the Borises, the Camerons and the Cleggs to manipulate our lives for their own ends. Because political systems are an irrelevance, they are the mechanism by which one man can inflict his own will on a group of other people; lending government a moral compunction that it doesn’t really feel. It all boils down to ego and vested interests. There are lots of backs to scratch. Lots of arses to cover. This is the age of the professional politician. When current failings will be forever blamed on past mistakes, until Gordon Brown occupies a role once reserved for Richard III. Politicians are like the celibate priests lecturing on marriage. What does Nick Clegg, Ed Miliband, George Osbourne or Uncle Dave understand about struggling to put fuel in a car or pay a heating bill? I would suggest very little. Probably a lot less than a Catholic Priest knows about sex. A damn sight less.
As I stepped thoughtfully into the night I thought about the country that we live in and the people that govern us. Some rules make sense, such as driving on a regulated side of the road. Other less so. And some only make sense to the people who implement them. For instance we now have, for the first time in our history, a politicized police force. At a time of shivering unemployment politics is apparently bucking the trend and creating new positions for itself. This bossing folks about seems to be a growth industry. Napoleon would approve.