When US President Donald Trump’s counselor Kellyanne Conway alerted the world to the existence of “alternative facts” in January this year, George Orwell’s novel 1984 rocketed to the top of the fiction bestseller lists. The book’s American publisher, Penguin USA, rushed 75,000 copies into the shops. They flew off the shelves.
The British director and playwright Duncan Macmillan, who was then in the United States supervising the upcoming Broadway production of his theatrical version of 1984, watched it happen.
US President Donald Trump
“The term ‘Orwellian’ is being used on a daily basis and perhaps people are reaching for the book to understand exactly what is meant by it,” says Macmillan, who, with collaborator Robert Icke, created the acclaimed stage adaptation for the UK touring company Headlong in 2013.
Icke and Macmillan’s 1984, which opened at the Nottingham Playhouse before transferring to the West End in 2014, is now being presented by the State Theatre Company of South Australia on a national tour that includes a season at Sydney Theatre Company.
“It’s tempting to look to Orwell as a Nostradamus-like prophet,” says Macmillan. “If readers want to find our current times reflected in the book they’ll find it: austerity, fear, perpetual war, terrorism, surveillance, objective truth, the censoring of language as a means of controlling thoughts. It’s all there.”
The cast of 1984 at the Playhouse Theatre. Photo © Manuel Harlan
When Macmillan and Icke began work on their adaptation, the news was frequently dominated by the revelations of former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden. Five Eyes, PRISM, Stone Ghost and ECHELON were no longer secret data collection programs but major media and watercooler talking points. Issues of privacy, security and liberty were on the agenda and at unprecedented levels.
“We were in rehearsal during the time of Chelsea Manning and WikiLeaks and the murder of [British Army soldier] Lee Rigby in Woolwich,” Macmillan recalls. “When we opened our West End run of the play, just yards away from the Ministry of Defence, we were previewing during the Brexit campaign and in the aftermath of the murder of [British Labour MP] Jo Cox.”
It would have been relatively straightforward to create a version of 1984 with those resonances, Macmillan says. “But it was important for us to not provide commentary beyond Orwell’s book as that could only reduce its meaning. Our job was to find a theatrical form for Orwell’s novel.”
Rather than depict the familiar mechanisms of oppression, Macmillan and Icke’s adaptation delves into the complexities and ambiguities in Orwell’s story of Winston Smith, a Ministry of Truth functionary charged with “thought crimes” against the state.
“I’d read it as a teenager and had mistakenly remembered a rather straightforward piece of dystopic fiction, predominantly about the dangers of surveillance,” says Macmillan. “Going back to the book, I realised I was completely wrong. What struck me when I went back to it was that the book is much more about objective truth, about who we trust and why, and if can we even trust ourselves, our memories, our senses. Most terrifying of all to me was not the suggestion that our thoughts were being monitored, but that our thoughts were being manipulated, even authored by external forces.”
1984. Photo © Manuel Harlan
Reductive study in school and various film versions of the story, have blunted both Orwell’s vision and the book’s power to challenge, Macmillan believes.
“Orwell’s writing is a lot more formally inventive, strange and exciting than I’d given it credit for,” he says. “Far from it being a one-sided rant, it’s actually a perfectly crafted moral puzzle which is, in the best way, unsolvable. I think that’s why it has been claimed by the left and the right of the political spectrum. The supposed prescience of 1984 comes from its articulation of some of the irreconcilable contradictions we all harbour.”
Previous adaptations had failed to get to grips with that level of complexity, Macmillan says. “We wanted to rehabilitate Orwell’s masterpiece by attempting to stage the formal gesture of it instead of just boiling it down to a simple narrative.”
The STCSA revival of 1984 opens in Adelaide in May. Guided to the stage by associate director Corey McMahon, it moves to Sydney in late June. The cast features Tom Conroy (as Winston Smith), Paul Blackwell, Terence Crawford, Ursula Mills, Renato Musolino, Guy O’Grady, Yalin Ozucelik and Fiona Press.
“Reality is very much up for grabs in this production,” says McMahon, explaining that its starting point is Orwell’s frequently overlooked appendix to 1984.
“People tend to skip it because it seems a bit dry and academic,” McMahon says. “But it’s actually very important because it throws the question of the authorship of the account into the air.”
Orwell’s appendix, entitled The Principles of Newspeak, is written from some unspecified point in the future. In it, the reader learns that Big Brother was eventually overthrown, not through the action of rebels, but because the limited lexicon of Newspeak contains within it the seeds of its own destruction. “Are you reading a piece of fiction, or some kind of historical document,” says McMahon. “If it’s the latter, who wrote it, and when? The appendix makes everything deliberately hard to pin down.”
The current production opens with a benign-seeming book group discussion of what may or may not be Winston Smith’s diaries. “In one way we are in Oceania [one of Orwell’s three post-war mega-states] and we are also in a theatre watching a bunch of actors telling a story,” McMahon says. “You are observing two realities and you believe them both.”
That uncertainty is key to the effect 1984 has on its audience, Macmillan says. “The people onstage are both characters and actors, they are both real and fictional. We hold those contradictory thoughts in our heads effortlessly when watching a play. So ‘doublethink’ runs through our production like the letters in a stick of rock. Just as Orwell’s novel plays these sorts of mind games, so our production messes with the audience’s head. It’s an irreconcilable Schrödinger’s Cat exercise in doublethink.”
Hara Yannas as Julia in the West End production of 1984. Photo © Manuel Harlan
Similarly, while the world of their production owes something to the look and feel of post-World War II Britain, it is, in fact, an illusion. 1984 is realised with the help of a great deal of theatrical hi-tech.
“When I first met Rob [Icke] we both talked about how we’d first seen the potential of theatre as teenagers, once we’d been dragged away from our TVs or games consoles,” Macmillan says. “We’d each been taken to see something which had blown our minds. But theatre is often dull and irrelevant, particularly to young people. We wanted to give them an experience that was going to be worth sitting through.”
Most reviews of the production have commented on its visceral impact. Lighting, design and sound “shock the senses” wrote The Guardian’s critic. A Los Angeles Times writer considered it “terrifying”.
“One particularly gratifying Tweet that we got was from a teenager after a school trip to see the play saying, ‘WTF – just saw #1984play – it was like being at a Skrillex gig’,” says Macmillan. “We’ve overheard all sorts of contradictory responses to it, from all over the ideological spectrum. People will inevitably look for the things in the story that support their own worldview. But none of us get out of it easily. It would be great if people looked hard at the things that made them feel the most uncomfortable and reckoned with that.”
But the most important thing when you are making a work like 1984 that connects to a young audience is not to preach, says Macmillan. “We don’t aim to teach young people about the merits or perils of social media,” he says. “The interesting thing to convey to the younger audiences, and anyone else, is that our thoughts might not be our own and to articulate the question, ‘how do you know you’re in the right?’”
McMahon describes 1984 as an unashamedly 21st-century piece of theatre. “Theatre has a lot of stiff competition from gaming and the likes of Amazon and Netflix,” he says. “The theatre has to keep up. It’s important to make it just as thrilling and audacious, and something that really pins you back in your seat. It’s not afraid to engage with the audience on a visceral level.”
1984 is at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide, May 13 – 27, in Melbourne, May 31 – June 10, at QPAC, June 10 – 14, Rosyln Packer Theatre, Sydney, June 28 – July 22, Canberra, July 25 – 29 and Perth, August 4 – 13