It was perfect political theater -- offstage. On stage the National Theatre of Great Britain's American premi`ere of ``Animal Farm'' was mild, compared to the international artistic flap following the play's expulsion from the 20th Theater of Nations festival. Earlier this month, when the Soviet Union objected to the play -- an adaptation of George Orwell's satire on Stalinist Russia -- the work was pulled, eliciting a storm of protest among the dozen international participants.
The National Theatre's director, Sir Peter Hall, invoked the British novelist's name and derided as ``Orwellian'' the decision by the International Theater Institute (ITI), a cultural branch of UNESCO, the festival's co-sponsor. Despite repeated assurances by Wole Soyinka, Nigerian playwright and ITI's president, that ``the principle of mutual respect of the national traditions of each country'' had guided the decision, the controversy continued to escalate.
Many American theater heads, including Lloyd Richards, dean of the Yale Drama School and one of the festival's organizers, were openly critical of the institute's decision. The United States Information Agency said it intends to withdraw nearly one-third of its $125,000 festival grant, and Frank Hodsoll, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), said the NEA would never have given its $25,000 grant had it known the production would be pulled.
So when the curtain rose on ``Animal Farm'' -- officially no longer part of the festival, but in actuality the biggest draw in town -- political temperatures were running high. They were considerably cooled by the production itself.
The two-year-old musical play first opened in the National Theatre's intimate Cottesloe Theater. It was adapted and directed by Mr. Hall, founder and past director of Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company, current director of the National, and one of England's most respected theater artists.
In Orwell's original work, revolution springs from the oppressed animals on Farmer Jones's estate. But, out of this simple faith in a dream of a classless barnyard, totalitarianism reasserts itself, and a full-fledged police state emerges. By choosing to emphasize the storybook nature of Orwell's purposeful tract, Hall has infused his visually imaginative production with a static, tableaulike feel. Unfortunately, the approach sacrifices much of the novel's emotional potency for simple allegory and one-note politics.
Jennifer Carey's imaginative masks, sets, and costumes transform the 20-member cast into a lurching, unsentimentalized barnyard herd. The production is not aided, however, by the pallid music of lyricist Adrian Mitchell and composer Richard Peaslee. One longed for some Brechtian bite.
The use of a child narrator to drag the familiar plot along its more pedestrian parts (``Two years passed, and the animals worked hard'') lent the production an unfortunate ``Nutcracker''-ish air, despite the polished reading by young Jeremy Stuart.
The cast, drawn largely from Britain's numerous regional theaters, whinnied and brayed, stamped and snorted, but avoided hamming their way through Orwell's tale of socialism descending into dictatorship.
Performances were more illustrative than interpretive, but to good avail, particularly in the case of Graham Sinclair as Boxer the Workhorse and John Normington as Squealer the Pig. Barrie Rutter, as the chief pig Napoleon, proprietor of Animal Farm and the Stalin stand-in, comes to life the more grotesque his tyrannical character becomes. When he drunkenly swings his clublike hooves and blithely breaks yet another of the collective's seven socialist commandments, Rutter injects a welcome note of buffoonery.
It is in the play's closing scene, however, when some of the animals have been declared ``more equal than others,'' that the play approaches Orwell's chilling intent. When the pigs, by now the dictators of the farm collective, rejoin the hated race of men, by walking on two legs and wearing clothes, their masks make their ranks virtually indistinguishable. It is when those masks are finally removed, and for the first time human faces are revealed, that Orwell's line, ``It was impossible to say which was which'' comes most ominously into its own. It was the one perfect point in this otherwise imperfect political play.