The world is having a 1984 moment.
The world has always been having a 1984 moment.
When Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan’s stage adaptation premiered in Nottingham in 2013, the backdrop was all about big data and surveillance anxieties. Edward Snowden’s revelations around NSA spying had many turning to George Orwell’s 1984 for literary parallels. Big Brother was watching, privacy was dead.
With the dawn of the Trump epoch, the almost 70-year-old novel shot to the top of the bestseller lists. With disputes over inauguration crowd size, and appeals to “alternative facts”, 1984 provided a ready-made narrative to help make sense of Trump’s America.
The 1984 play adaptation was rushed to Broadway in 2017, where, despite the appeal to its timeliness, it failed to catch fire, closing after 125 regular performances. Perhaps when your country has already slipped into a dystopia, you don’t like to be reminded of it.
Elsewhere, the stage adaptation – riding a combination of the novel’s ubiquity, its prescience for the contemporary moment, and some smart theatrics – has been travelling the UK to high acclaim. This production reaches the Auckland Arts Festival with an Australian cast.
Orwell’s novel (written in 1948 and published the following year) follows Winston Smith as he questions his restrictive society and seeks out the resistance. The work can be read as an allegory for state power in the Second World War; the ideologies constructed by the states, and how the citizenry bought into them. We can glimpse refractions of the Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany and the propaganda in war-time Britain. Smith’s job in the Ministry of Truth, where he wipes people from the historical record of the Party, is a not too subtle analogue for Trotsky being erased from photographs and records by the Soviets.
An early scene in the play depicts what seems to be a book club discussing the significance of 1984, emphasising how Orwell’s text continues to operate as a mirror: we find what we want to inside it. A character opines that the text has entered our collective unconscious – even if we haven’t read it, we know its concepts. They call it one of the most significant things ever put down on paper. Its about uncertainty. It demolishes objective truth.
If it was released today, 1984 might be criticized for being too on the nose. In our post-truth times, where a master of obfuscation hurls a “fake news” label at the mainstream media, the general acceptance by the characters in 1984 of the Party’s contradictory propaganda messaging is all too believable. Orwell’s Newspeak, which limits language to its most utilitarian, speaks to the weaponisation of language, how it can be used to dehumanise and radicalise. And of course there’s the mass surveillance of the novel; today, we readily give up our privacy to participate in society and gain identity and community.
This production, therefore, has to battle the weight of the novel’s literary history, and the bluntness of its contemporary interpretation. It can be hard to make an impact when reality is parodying the fiction better than the fiction can parody the reality.
In adapting this story for the stage, an obvious strategy would be to position the audience as the thought police, who are said to be watching the citizens through their telescreens. There are traces of this, particularly when Winston rents a private room to commit sexcrime (intercourse for non-procreative purposes) with fellow party member Julia. He’s told there is no telescreen in the room, but when the characters go off-stage, we see their bedroom talk projected in widescreen above the stage. It works on a thematic level, but on a theatrical level, the loss of liveness fatally impacts the production’s momentum.
Icke and MacMillian’s main adaptation strategy, however, is to align our point of view with Winston’s. This is achieved through constant disorientation. Characters appear out of nowhere from the darkness. Timelines are unstable. Scenes are repeated. It’s all very unnerving.
Winston is repeatedly asked where he thinks he is. The audience too can never be sure where we are or the exact nature of what we’re watching. Take that book club. Is Winston imagining his future readers, imagining that his words might have made an impact? Are these readers for whom Winston’s diary is actually their historical past? (The appendices of Orwell’s book suggest that at some future point Big Brother and the party fell). Or is Winston already sitting in Room 101, and these are visions controlled by his brainwashers? The result is a theatrical doublethink (or even triplethink, where he hold two (or more) contradictory possibilities in our head simultaneously.
You can feel the directorial presence of Icke and MacMillan, how tightly controlled it all is, the strong hands moving the action with exacting pacing and blocking. In this South Australian production, the blue print of the original production has been replicated with precision.
Tom Conroy plays Winston, anxiety riddled over his face. Rose Riley as Julia, meanwhile, largely maintains her poker face. The high point of passion is Winston and Julia’s ‘Down with Big Brother’ hook up, contrasting with the earlier scene of ‘Two Minutes Hate’ where the characters hurl abuse at Big Brother’s enemies during a propaganda video. Julia acquits herself superbly in both scenarios. The rest of the cast play their characters on spectrum from numb cluelessness to superior menace.
The costuming forgoes the dystopic overalls of the film adaptation, replaced by English austerity-twee. This world has a lived-in ordinariness. Designer Chloe Lamford’s main space, a study room, with records and files placed off to the side, stands in for a number of locations in the story – a canteen, Winston’s workplace, an antique shop. Later on, there’s an absolutely astonishing transformation of the space. The production revels in pulling the rug from underneath both Winston and the audience.
Winston is emphatic that there are truths, and there are facts. His torture, where he is asked to concede that 2+2 equals 5, is genuinely unsettling, not just for its hyper-reality, but the psychological twists. As the production tries very hard to turn Winston’s predicament back on us, some of the dialogue walks a fine line between profundity and glibness. The people will not revolt, they will not look up from their screens. We are Big Brother. Wake up sheeples!
But it’s easy to be a cynic, right? The impulse towards postmodern uncertainty means the stage adaptation rewards the prejudices of the viewer. If you’re inclined to be hopeful, you might argue that at some point the totalitarian Party did collapse, progress is possible. The cynic might counter that the party just changed its form, or it’s all a false narrative to taunt Winston. We might also consider how Winston’s torture has been played for our own perverse entertainment. When there is nothing definite, it’s all up for debate.
In a passage from the novel, Winston worries about being understood by a possible future reader: “either the future would resemble the present, in which case it would not listen to him: or it would be different from it, and his predicament would be meaningless”.
There is no danger of this adaptation coming across as merely a historical or literary curiosity. Our world’s present resembles Winston’s past. In Aotearoa, the apocalyptic safe haven, we like to believe that we are inoculated from the totalitarian bent that we see can observe elsewhere in the world. There’s a warning in here for us, perhaps, to stay vigilant.
1984 is thrilling theatremaking, but for all of the bells and whistles and jump cuts and loud noises, the storytelling is ultimately delivered with a resigned lethargy, inevitability, rather than urgency, alacrity. It’s less of a warning, more of a wake that it is already too late.
Perhaps one day Winston’s predicament will be seen as meaningless. In the meantime, our 1984 moment continues.
1984 is presented by Auckland Arts Festival in association with GWB Entertainment, the State Theatre Company of South Australia and Auckland Theatre Company. It plays at the ASB Waterfront Theatre until 25 March.