“I think we’ve ended up being incredibly faithful to the book.” Duncan MacMillan
George Orwell’s last novel, published in 1949, was not expected to have much of a shelf life post-1984 but the book has assumed an unexpected importance in contemporary times as citizens struggle to understand the machinations of politics, especially mass surveillance, ceaseless war, state-sponsored torture and how language is degraded for propaganda purposes in a globally-connected world.
Nineteen Eighty-Four continues to appear in the bestseller lists. ‘Orwellian’ is frequently used in newspaper articles and editorials along with the terms coined in the novel: Big Brother, Newspeak, Room 101, Doublethink and Thought Police. There is a new edition of the novel, ongoing scholarly interest in Orwell’s extensive output of non fiction writing, including his journalism, reviews and essays. There is ongoing debate about his political beliefs and the textual integrity of his work, often treated unkindly by editors fearing legal action.
Dennis Glover has cheered us a little with his forward to the latest edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four by arguing that Orwell did not intend for the novel to conclude so bleakly. He shows us that the second printing of the first edition has Winston displaying free will and not scribbling “5” in response to the question, 2+2 = when sitting alone at the The Chestnut Tree Cafe. He believes it likely Orwell requested this change in the last months of his life. Glover’s own novel, The Last Man in Europe, imaginatively explores Orwell’s path to writing Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Tickets to the latest stage adaptation – created by Robert Icke & Duncan MacMillan, which has had phenomenal success in the last couple of years in the UK, USA and now Australia – were not easy to procure. Luckily, I saw the closing night of the Sydney Theatre Company’s sold-out run staged at the Roslyn Packer Theatre last week and have been reflecting on the show and reading the script.
The 100-minute performance, without interval, had an intensity undiminished throughout. The stagecraft, especially the use of multimedia, is remarkable for both its simplicity and sophistication. The media-hype about the torture scene, when Winston is in Room 101, unfortunately lessened the impact as it is not as confronting as expected. I was disappointed that there was not a multimedia technique to give Winston’s perspective of those famished sewer rats hurling their yellow-teethed and scaly bodies at the cage door to attack his face. That would have been truly more disturbing than blood on plastic.
The casting challenged my conception of the novel’s protagonist Winston, played by Tom Conroy, as he appeared far too youthful and vigorous. There was not an itchy varicose vein in sight. There was a great need for more thoughtful stillness and less melodramatic paranoia. Julia (Ursula Mills) also felt wrong and ineffectively wooden. O’Brien (Terence Crawford) was perfect, played with quiet menace and complete authority. The scenes inside the Ministry of Truth are the strongest in the play.
“Winston’s vantage point is 1984, or thereabouts, whereas the anonymous author of the postscript could be writing at any point up and beyond 2050, the moment Oldspeak was superseded by Newspeak. The appendix yields fascinations about a totalitarian state’s control of language – and by extension thought.” (quoted from STC program)
Most conversation, online and after the show, amongst English teacher colleagues and friends, focused on the framing device that commenced and concluded the play. Many felt it was disorienting and poorly staged. A book club appear to be discussing the novel from a vantage point in the future and Winston is present. It becomes more obvious what is going on by the (much more effective) epilogue. Robert Icke explains the central importance of the often unread appendix, The Principles of Newspeak, to faithfully adapting the novel:
“I think the appendix is the most important bit. I think it is structurally the thing that defines the whole… I don’t know that you can adapt this novel if you don’t touch the appendix….It’s a book that’s about unreliability…and Orwell puts something at the end that a lot of people hilariously and ironically haven’t bothered to finish.”
The opening of the play doesn’t quite work. The intellectual foundation of the idea is spot on but the staging fails to realise the conceit. The set, with books/shelves, does not make complete sense, especially as we see the books throughout most of the play. Yes, the reading group were in a library-like setting but that then jars visually when we are in Winston’s room at Victory Mansions. The epilogue is more effective and reveals how Newspeak and thought control have been implemented by 2050. The thoughtful audience member has the opportunity to question authorship and the inherent challenge of truthfulness in language. It certainly resulted in doublethink for me. With a few tweaks to the opening scene, perhaps making use of multimedia, the present of Winston’s world of 1984 could be distinguished more effectively from that of the future and would help realise the philosophy espoused by those adapting the novel.
The show opens in Perth next week.
Other titles read during July
The holidays and illness have resulted in many more books read than usual this month.
How to Be Both (2014) by Ali Smith
The Last Man in Europe: A Novel (2017) by Dennis Glover
October: The Story of the Russian Revolution (2017) by China Miéville
American Gods (2001) by Neil Gaiman
George Orwell at Home (and Among the Anarchists): Essays and Photographs (1998) by Vernon Richards
The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell (2004) by Hilary Spurling
Remembering Orwell by Stephen Wadhams (1984)