There was a time when the phrase Big Brother meant a whole lot more
than an increasingly freakish reality TV show. It is such grotesque
legitimisation of surveillance culture as public spectacle, however,
which in part fuels Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan new stage version
of George Orwell's dystopian novel, 1984. Their co-production between
the Headlong theatre company, Nottingham Playhouse and the Almeida
Theatre arrives in Glasgow this week following suitably mass acclaim
for its first run in 2013.
While this new version adapts Orwell's novel in full, the starting
point for Icke and Macmillan was not the novel itself, which charts
Winston Smith's battle with an authoritarian state as he rebels and
falls in love with a woman called Julia, but the appendix that follows
“The appendix really changes your perception of the main story,” Icke
says of The Principles of Newspeak, which refers to the novel's
ideologically driven minimalist language. “It's a strange part of the
novel, that's written as an academic essay in oldspeak and in the past
tense. There's a footnote in the novel that refers to the appendix, so
really, you should read the first five pages of the novel and then go
to the appendix, which says that Newspeak should have been the official
language by 2050, but also implies that it didn't happen. So clearly
the appendix is set in a future time after the novel has ended, which
raises all sorts of questions about the reliability of the text that
you've just read. Clearly Winston Smith made it into the future, but it
doesn't tell you how, or who is in charge.
“In this respect the narrative of the book becomes slippier and harder
to pin down than it first appears to be, and it's a much more ambiguous
novel than you think. The left have claimed it as a novel of the
political left, and the right have claimed it as a novel of the
political right, but it's actually very difficult to get the book to
fall on one side or the other. It's very balanced in that way, and at
the book's heart is this love story that takes up great chunks of the
book alongside these questions about what do we do when we live in an
age where people don't trust politicians and the system is broken.
“The story is set during an age of austerity when there is
disenchantment with the political system, so it's not that far removed
from where we are now, especially with Wikileaks and Bradley Manning.
There's this whole idea of surveillance culture, and whether it's ever
justified for the government to read your emails if it helps to stop
certain things like terrorist plots.
“1984 also asks questions about what happens if you have no faith in
the current government, how you change that, and what power do you
actually have to protest. Can one man change the world without
resorting to violence, and what is the point of going on a march if it
has no discernible effect? It's much bigger than just getting out the
blue overalls and having the actors learn to march in step. Our take on
1984 isn't about doing it as gritty realism. It's much more dream-like.”
The last time 1984 was seen on a main stage was more than a decade ago,
when former Dundee Rep artistic director Alan Lyddiard served up a
large-scale version for Northern Stage at what was then Newcastle
Playhouse. As well as utilising video work by Mark Murphy, Lyddiard's
production featured a cast which included Cait Davis as Julia. Davis
would go on to work with Edinburgh-based site-specific theatre company
Grid Iron in the unnervingly intimate Those Eyes That Mouth.
Coincidentally, the original Winston in Headlong's production, Mark
Arends, also appeared in a Grid Iron show, the hip-hop musical, Fierce.
Like Lyddiard's production, Icke and Macmillan's version uses video and
sound alongside a large ensemble cast to tell Orwell's story in
spectacular fashion. While this in itself makes for a thrilling
theatrical experience, Icke and Macmillan have attempted to push things
even further to try and get to the heart of the story.
“So often in theatre it's more comfortable not to have an effect on the
audience,” Icke says. “You go along, watch a show and leave, picking up
the same conversation you were having before you went. With our version
of 1984, we felt that we had to try harder to be visceral, and to try
and capture that spirit of the book that leaves you feeling
steam-rollered, and we have had some pretty visceral reactions. We've
had people running out and people being sick, and that's how it should
be. If you try and sanitise things then you're not doing it properly.
“Our approach to 1984 is fundamentally like a lot of really good horror
films. A lot of the novel slips in and out of Winston Smith's mind as
he becomes under more and more psychological pressure until he can't
take it anymore, so we go deeper into that. The response to that is
going to be different for everybody, if you've maybe had your phone
hacked, or if you're pro surveillance, but if you don't go out of the
theatre afterwards feeling different to when you went in, then we're
not cutting deep enough.”
1984, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow until September 6.
The Herald, August 30 2014