Singaporeans as Dumb Animals

The most brilliant coup pulled off by Singaporean theatre icon Ivan Heng in his direction of George Orwell’s depressing political fable Animal Farm is his sheer refusal to be depressing. As the play gets darker, with good guys banished and innocents slaughtered, the laughter comes on thicker. But watching this manic depiction of an oppressive government, you will laugh with the chill offamiliarity.

Singapore theatre company Wild Rice, who collaborated with Five Arts Centre last year to present The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole / No Parking On Odd Days, has given us another bold production that makes us do a double-take on the way we regard our relationship with authorities. While over here in Kuala Lumpur, we are still earnestly waltzing through Mat Salleh scripts whole sale and producing culturally schizophrenic plays, Ivan Heng has taken this English classic and given it a relevance to the local culture in a way that is enlightening, even frightening. Aside from the subtle and witty infusion of Singaporean oddities the text is mostly left untouched. Orwell’s truths about ideologies gone wrong, which must be borne from his harrowing boarding school days, strikes ever closer to home.

I remember my boarding school days, studying Animal Farm at a secondary school in Singapore (I even acted as a soon-to-be-decapitated chicken in my school’s big budget attempt at staging it). What seems at first like a quaint story with talking animals actually turns out to be an allegorical tale about dumb humans. This was set from the beginning with a long rousing speech by the farm’s dying prize pig. His sentiments are persuasive: “The life of an animal is misery and slavery: that is the plain truth. But is this simply part of the order of nature? Is it because this land of ours is so poor that it cannot afford a decent life to those who dwell upon it?” Then the dying prize pig dies, the farmer is ousted and the animals set up a socialist order in which all animals are free and equal. The role of maintaining the order, naturally, falls to the cleverest animals: pigs. Soon the swines are pampering themselves on the milk and sacrifice of the other creatures, who believe that their ongoing hardship is a necessity to their elusive dream. After all, we don’t want the bloody colonialists, I mean, Farmer Jones back, do we?

At the age of 14, I had found the story relentlessly morbid. I mean, tough for the serfs. Thank God, I am in this nice garden city where they have literature classes that teach us about the evil of other countries. Not only that, I thought the animals are too dumb to deserve their lives anyway. The dumbest has to be the horse called Boxer, whose motto in life is, “I will work harder.” If anything goes wrong, if the system fails, if the political equivocations gets confusing, it can be resolved by hard work. The pigs love him.

This play, marvelously adapted by Ian Wooldridge for seven actors, blistered me to the prevalence of Orwell’s pessimism in our times and revealed the profound humanity in the animals, no matter how dumb. Lim Kay Siu (who plays Frankie Foo in Phua Chu Kang) as Boxer is a rough, simple creature aware of his limited intelligence. The dignity he imparts to his labour, the only gift he has, is deeply moving. His conversations with his mate, Clover, played by the beautiful Tan Kheng Hua (Margaret in PCK), are so natural as to remind me of old couples in coffee shops discussing the latest headlines. Tan’s depiction of Clover, who genuinely struggles between blind faith and cynicism, is restraint acting at its most exquisite. Her one moment of hysteria and her ultimate surrender is devastating to behold.

Then there is the cute Pam Oei who, grinning broadly, utilises an over-the-top friendly-neighbourhood-politician schtick to lend an insidious edge to the role of Squealer, the top pig’s spokesperson. Selena Tan is candid as Mollie the spoilt pony and spooky as Moses the evangelist raven. Her Swan Lake death scene is to die for. Philip Tan, the composer and exuberant on-stage musician, is an honorary cast and an endearing sight behind his   cage of instruments. His simulation of the storm scene, which has him prancing around the actors and banging his sticks on the stage floor, drumming up a complex rhythm that is a cross between industrial and tribal, will simply blow you away.

Orwell has written other depressing novels like the dystopic 1984 and the autobiographical Down And Out In London And Paris. But his severest line must be the last line from Animal Farm. Describing a business meeting between the pigs and their former enemies, humans, it reads: “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” This line is not uttered in the play. Watch instead for the clever way Jiang Zemin’s APEC coat is used here to illustrate   that line.

Ivan Heng’s direction is masterful on many levels. The creative lateral thinking, the faultless pacing, and the subversive way he lets the audience laugh at their own defeat. This is not just a play about corrupted leaders, it is about the dumb silent majority as well. It made me wonder if all those ideals I had acquired in literature class have all but been surrendered in my pursuit of career, money and entertainment, and if I have indeed remained a chicken all this while.

Animal Farm is definitely worth a trip down. Malaysians will no doubt find the depiction of their southerly neighbours very amusing. That is until they recognise themselves in it.

Images sourced from:

First Published: 26.04.2002 on Kakiseni

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