Comrade Napoleon gallops back to Joburg with the power of ‘Animal Farm’

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After a sold-out run in Pretoria and Durban, the award-winning production of the classic novel Animal Farm returns to Joburg. Director Neil Coppen’s version of George Orwell’s timeless work of satire will run at Joburg’s Market Theatre for two weeks only, from September 20.

Featuring an entrenched class system, political corruption, malicious usurpers of power, and a naive working class, Animal Farm, may have been written in 1945 and was based on the history of Soviet communism, but South Africans may find some of the themes disturbingly familiar.

Using animals on an English farm called Manor Farm, Orwell based certain characters on Communist Party leaders, such as Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky being depicted by pigs Napoleon and Snowball. It was adapted for an African context by Coppen in 2014.

There are a few changes – for example, the human oppressor Mr Jones has become Maneer Joubert and the anthem “Beasts of England” has changed to “Beasts of Africa”. But the themes, characters and ideas behind Orwell’s text remain unchanged.

“It still remains incredibly relevant, especially when we look at the past decade or so of South African politics,” says Lali Dangazele, managing director of Nobulali Productions, which has been involved with Animal Farm through ShakeXperience, a theatre company specialising in arts education.

Animal Farm shows us how power can corrupt, and how the formerly oppressed can become the oppressors. It encourages the audience to think critically about the reoccurring patterns of power and corruption within political systems and structures.”

In an ironic twist the entire production – except for Coppen and choreographer Daniel Buckland – is run by women, including the producers, stage manager and lighting designer Tina le Roux. Animal Farm may reflect histories that are inherently patriarchal and oppressive, yet it is no longer told by men.

Neil Coppen describes the show’s three year success as a career highlight with his adaptation of Animal Farm having reached over 60 000 audience members around the country, with a sell-out run and standing ovations greeting performances at this year’s National Art’s festival.

“We had no idea the production would be given such a long and extensive life when we first created it, it really has been the most incredible journey for us all.

“Seeing sold-out houses around the country has been hugely affirming in the sense it’s reminded me that contemporary political/protest theatre still has a vital function, not to mention a committed and hungry audience, here in South Africa.”

While he attributes part of the productions success to the timeless popularity of Orwell’s classic, he is also quick to add that the main ingredient is the six extraordinary women who bring the story to life on stage each night.

“These women are formidable talents, activists and personalities, they are the rocks-stars of the stage,” says Coppen. “During the last run at the Market, we had so many repeat viewings from audience members, coming to the show two or three times, that the cast would walk out onstage in the opening scene and be met by this rapturous applause and cheering from the audience before they had even spoken their first lines.”

The production’s casting includes Tshego Khutsoane/ Mpume Mthombeni  (Napoleon), MoMo Matsunyane (Snowball), Mandisa Nduna (Nduna), Zesuliwe Hadebe (Clover) and Khutjo Bakunzi-Green (Boxer). There is also some innovative shadow puppetry and costuming by Johannesburg-based designer Thando Lobese.

Jonothan Neelands will be doing workshops on Animal Farm and other drama based workshops in the second week of the run. Join him Wednesday, September 28 for the Animal Farm performance from 1am to 1pm, followed by the workshop from 2pm-4pm. Inquiries: www.ShakeXperience.com

Animal Farm is on at the Market Theatre from September 20 to October 2. Tickets start at R90. There are block and group bookings available. Book on 083 246 4950 or 079 946 3071.

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