George Orwell continues to provoke with Nineteen Eighty-Four
George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is more relevant than ever, the creators of an acclaimed new stage version tell Sharon Verghis
A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded, unanalysed thought.
— Edward Snowden, December 25, 2013 You can’t have 100 per cent security and also then have 100 per cent privacy and zero inconvenience. We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.
— US President Barack Obama
Three years ago, Robert Icke, a rising star of British theatre, started fossicking around for a classic novel to adapt for the upcoming season of British theatre company Headlong. From a long list, he chose George Orwell’s 1949 dystopian masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four, a work he had first read at school.
“It was funny, really, it was like falling in love,’’ he says. “At the time you don’t realise it but later, when I was telling everyone I was going to adapt it, it was like, ‘Yeah, you were always keen on that girl, weren’t you?’ ”
It’s early morning in London and Icke’s fatigue is leaking from every sleep-slurred consonant. It’s been a hectic time for the 29-yearold, who is associate director at the Almeida Theatre, where he’s been blazing trails, provoking critics (Britain’s The Telegraph described his staging of Anne Washburn’s Mr Burns last year as “three hours of hell”) and generating headlines as the new bad boy of the British stage.
Almeida artistic director Rupert Goold, formerly of Headlong, where Icke was associate director, has compared him with Kenneth Branagh and David Lan: “When a young turk in their 20s arrives and says ‘ I’m going to change the world’, you go: Maybe this is the answer.”
Icke’s dark, bloody adaptation of The Oresteia, billed as “part Godfather, part Breaking Bad” and hailed by critics as one of this year’s theatrical sensations, has just transferred to the West End when he speaks to Review by phone.
His rendition of Aeschylus’s epic trilogy follows hot on the heels of the recently concluded return West End season of 1984, the explosive, chilling adaptation Icke crafted with Duncan Macmillan (who is also opening a new play, People, Places and Things, at the National Theatre the week he speaks to Review).
Sharing writing and directing credits as a “two-headed monster”, the pair unveiled their big, bristling multimedia take on Orwell’s classic to glowing reviews (and often horrified audience reactions) at the Nottingham Playhouse in 2013 ahead of a national tour, and then two sellout West End seasons. Described as a “theatrical tour de force [with] the destructive power of an earthquake”, this Headlong Theatre production has been seen by more than 300,000 people. It’s now on its way to this month’s Melbourne Festival ahead of an American tour.
Set in a vaguely book club-like setting, it opens with a group of people discussing what may or not be the diary journal of Winston Smith, Orwell’s doomed protagonist adrift in the sinister totalitarian world of Oceania. Their staging, departing sharply from previous adaptations with its focus on the novel’s little-known appendix, is deliberately rife with ambiguities: you don’t know where you are temporally or spatially, time frames flicker and overlap, characters shape-shift, their motivations unclear. It’s doublethink on stage, as Icke puts it. All action potentially happens in the split second it takes “for a bullet to pass through the brain”.
He and Macmillan ( 2071, Lungs, Every Brilliant Thing) have pulled no punches in bringing Orwell’s nightmarish world to life: the production, studded with giant screens and hidden cameras, is a relentless sensory onslaught of mock-electrocutions, masked gunmen bursting on stage, exploding walls, destroyed sets, blinding strobe lights and soundtracks of scratching rodents.
As tension builds in the lead-up to the terrifying Room 101 scene, audiences have squirmed, screamed, been sick, even run out. Icke says the sheer visceral power of live performance is manifest in the fact that even actor Matthew Spencer, who played Winston on the West End this year, “has felt physically sick … onstage, he’s genuinely undergoing something traumatic, his heart is beating faster”.
Icke describes the 140 minute-long (no interval) production as a kind of psychological pressure cooker. You cannot sanitise theatre, he says bluntly, especially if you want to cut through to an “Xbox and Sopranos” generation faced with so many competing cultural distractions.
His and Macmillan’s mission is to make this younger audience, many of whom were born around 1984 and who came of political age in Britain as part of a vast and increasingly disillusioned political class, think and feel and debate ideas raised by a book that “every age sees itself reflected in”.
Written in a fog of emotional turmoil by the grieving, tuberculous-stricken author on the remote Scottish island of Jura, Nineteen Eighty-Four has been provoking all manner of strong reactions since it was first published.
Set in a world of perpetual war and government surveillance overseen by the omniscient Big Brother, it would be celebrated by the likes of Bertrand Russell and EM Forster, go on to be translated into 65 languages and become one of the great canonical works of the 20th century.
Orwell’s fiction, it is often said, is now our reality. Nineteen Eighty-Four and its lexicon — Big Brother, Newspeak, thought crimes and Room 101 — have a stronger grip than ever on our everyday discourse, their ideas evoked with the regularity of clockwork in debates on everything from governmental curtailment of freedoms to digital privacy (witness US senator and presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, who has warned of an ‘‘Orwellian future’’ in the context of revelations from Wiki-Leaks and the National Security Agency files leaked by ex-contractor Edward Snowden).
Certainly, Icke says, it’s the perfect work for an era grappling with what seems to be a neverending, nebulous “war on terror”, an expanding surveillance culture and the corresponding implications for civil liberties (indeed, ticket sales for Nineteen Eighty Four increased by up to seven times within the first week of the 2013 mass surveillance leaks in the US).
Their adaptation is one of a spate of recent revivals addressing these concerns on the British stage, including Dawn King’s adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s 1931 novel Brave New World at the Royal and Derngate in Northampton, and a new adaptation of Franz Kafka’s 1914 novel The Trial by Nick Gill at the Young Vic.
“All that NSA stuff was going on while we were in rehearsals,” Icke recalls.
“Chelsea Manning [the American soldier jailed for leaking classified military information to Wiki-Leaks] came out and said, ‘I wonder how on earth could I, a junior analyst, possibly believe I could change the world for the better’ — which is more or less a parallel of what Winston says [in Orwell’s novel].
“I remember we were sitting on the rehearsal floor with the actors and someone read out that whole statement off their phone and it was one of those moments where you go, ‘Oh my God’.”
Macmillan, in a separate phone interview, also recalls how the “world seemed to be almost quoting to us directly from the book”. For him, the least interesting aspect of the novel was “whether Orwell prophesied surveillance cameras, or whether he was talking about Twitter or Facebook, all that stuff’’.
“To me, it was much more about this really interesting, complicated, contradictory book about ideas, who controls your thoughts and your politics, how do you know they’re your own, ideas about the self — those were the things that were really fascinating and terrifying,” he says.
The real terror, says Icke, is “that the individual can no longer thrive, it’s about the collective, about corporations, people voting according to what they’re told by illiterate newspapers ... to me that is one of the underlying terrors, the idea that your actions don’t matter, you’re a tiny drop in a massive ocean. If you look at democracy at the moment, it doesn’t seem to be really serving us.”
Equally intriguing to the pair is how the novel seems to appeal to both the Left and Right — “We had people from all parts of the political spectrum come to see it and claim it as their own,” Macmillan says — and the way it comments so presciently on everything from the “bleeding dry of language” (Icke cites the contemporary semantics war — “migrant, asylumseeker, refugee, which is it and does it matter when people are dying?” — surrounding the current crisis engulfing Europe) to what he sees as a worldwide loss of faith in political systems (he is intrigued to hear about Australia’s recent political upheavals: “It’s the same over here in the UK”).
It throws light, too, on our sleepwalking acceptance of growing intrusions into personal freedoms. Icke cites our incremental tolerance of increasingly sophisticated electronic devices, from new-generation mobile phones to the voice recognition software on Samsung televisions. This is despite the tracking implications of these gadgets, which Brave New World director Dawn King outlined thus this year: “We’re walking round with these tiny computers in our pockets: your government probably knows everything about you; your phone company definitely knows everything about you — even your calorie intake; you spread all this information everywhere you go.”
Our obsessive absorption in these flickering, shiny squares is echoed in the duo’s adaptation, with audiences laughing uneasily, knowingly, at the line: “The people will not revolt. They will not look up from their screens long enough to notice what’s happening.”
We know we’re being watched and listened to, but do we care? Icke says we engage in a kind of willing self-deception. “You know that your iPhone is made for probably stupidly low prices in a factory in China, in horrible conditions, and you know people jump out of windows all the time, and yet, you know, it lets you check your email, it lets you play games. You live in the world that suits you best, not the one that’s the most true.”
The power of Orwell’s novel lies in its refusal to be ideologically pigeonholed; Icke says their stage version is similarly “porous to let all views in”. One of the most intriguing aspects of the novel, adds Macmillan, “is that it makes a case for the surveillance state, that moral ambiguity and ambivalence is very interesting and complicated. It was really extraordinary, while doing this adaptation, how our own ideologies and feelings about it shifted as well.”
He raises the issue of the murder of soldier Lee Rigby on the streets of London by two Muslim terrorists: “The day before the murder happened, everyone was up in arms about our texts and emails being monitored, and then the day after it happened, it was all: ‘ Why didn’t we know this was happening, why weren’t these people being monitored and followed?’ And that’s the thing, isn’t it? That kind of security always come with the price of our liberty.”
It’s a pragmatic lesson spelt out by Barack Obama after the NSA controversy in 2013 when he said the US government, in his view, had struck the right balance between vigilance and intrusion. Icke snorts at the “lazy liberalism” of those who would condemn the US President for this delicate balancing act: “You can’t have it both ways. You have to accept that from time to time, crazy people are going to do horrible things, and [reading your emails] is the price to pay.” A key structural tweak, approved by the Orwell estate, was dramatising the novel’s littleread appendix, the dense, academic list of Newspeak terms at the end. “Most people say they’ve read the book but they haven’t really, because most haven’t read the appendix, which Orwell saw as essential to the story,” Icke says.
It’s referred to early in the book in a footnote; if you read it, Icke argues, it is “completely indisputable” that it is an elaborate framing device Orwell used to set up the premise that everything that comes before is possibly fake, and that instead of reigning victoriously as implied in the novel’s final chapter, the Party has fallen.
There is another of these little Orwellian ironies embedded, he says, in the section where Winston is reading the proscribed book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein, and promptly falls asleep just as he reaches the part where a central secret is about to be revealed.
Macmillan says: “We have tried to make sure that at any given moment there are between five and eight possible interpretations … which means it really rewards multiple viewings, which has been great here, we’ve had loads of people coming out of the theatre and immediately rebooking.
“It has hopefully that Sixth Sense- like thing where you come out and start arguing whether Winston or Julia or O’Brien were goodies or baddies, or whether Winston got to Room 101 or he never got there at all.’’
Why has the stage version proved so resonant? “I think it’s tapped into some kind of zeitgeist in the UK where there’s widespread sense of fear that we can no longer trust governments and corporations. There’s a sense of apathy, and anxiety about that apathy, and about who exactly is running this place,” Macmillan says.
For Melbourne Festival director Josephine Ridge, it’s a near certainty, then, that the production will “absolutely, completely resonate” with Australian audiences grappling with the implications of everything from the new metadata laws to border force security checks on the streets of capital cities.
A program of tie-in special events will be spearheaded by a series of live readings of the novel over a period of eight hours at Melbourne’s Legislative Assembly by more than 30 prominent figures from the arts, politics and the media (scheduled speakers include Greens MP Adam Bandt, lawyer Julian Burnside and political commentator Barrie Cassidy) as well as members of the public.
With Icke, you sense an almost evangelical drive to make us look up from our shiny little squares. “We are so excited to be bringing it to Australia,’’ he says. “By the time you finish the play, we want you to feel different to when you came in. If you’re not moved, if I haven’t made you feel something, then I haven’t done my job. But if people stagger out and want to talk about it, I think we’re halfway there.”
1984 opens at the Melbourne Festival on October 16.
ALL THAT NSA STUFF WAS GOING ON WHILE WE WERE IN REHEARSALS
Far left and above, scenes from a West End production of 1984; left, writers and directors Duncan Macmillan and Robert Icke