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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

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

ROBERT ICKE

Far left and above, scenes from a West End pro­duc­tion of 1984; left, writ­ers and di­rec­tors Dun­can Macmil­lan and Robert Icke

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