Thinking Your Way Through a Labyrinth of Contemporary Issues
I experienced a fresh adaptation of George Orwell’s classic 1984 at West Yorkshire Playhouse. Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan are the people responsible for the creation of a new theatre version of Orwell’s famous dystopian novel.
As part of the large audience at the playhouse’s Quarry theatre, I witnessed Winston Smith’s struggle for the truth as he desperately tried to expose the mass manipulation conducted by Big Brother and The Party. The play was both entertaining and horrific. A large section is devoted to the torture and interrogation of Winston which is full of interesting light effects and deafening sounds helping to provoke an emotional reaction from the audience. The play is a serious affair, as it should be. 1984 wasn’t meant to be a light novel, it is Orwell’s vision of a terrible future where totalitarianism has taken over and even the language with which we use to articulate ourselves has become prey to the manipulation of the regime. Icke and Macmillan’s 1984 focuses on Orwell’s concept of Newspeak in particular. Winston suffers anxiety throughout over the manipulation of meaning through the Party’s introduction of Newspeak. The play encourages contemplation over the dangers of language manipulation and therefore the control of meaning. In particular there was a focus over Orwell’s small appendix at the back of the book entitled THE PRINCIPLES OF NEWSPEAK. Read either as an alternative ending or a further idea for thought, the appendix gives us the impression that The Party had actually ceased to exist or was destroyed long ago, perhaps alerting us to the possibility that Winston was right after-all, and that the human spirit did persevere in the face of The Party. Headlong and Nottingham Playhouse’s production started giving attention towards the idea of Winston’s story being set in the past. It also ended with a short abstract discussion over Winston’s experience, again alerting the audience to the possibility that Big Brother and The Party were now gone and perhaps had been destroyed. This adaptation of 1984 seems to pay homage to Orwell’s socialism as it emphasizes the possibilities of Orwell’s short appendix, illuminating the strength of the human spirit and its ability to break through the most horrific of ordeals.
The Headlong production of 1984 was received well by the packed audience at the Quarry Theatre. As people meandered out of the dark theatre, the murmurings of discussion and debate over the play could be heard all around.
Orwell’s life history is one of significant interest. No doubt his experiences of attending a sadistically strict public school, being a military policeman in Burma, living in poverty in Paris and London, observing working-class life in Lancashire and Yorkshire, fighting in the Spanish Civil War against the fascists and the Stalinists and living amongst the ruins of wartime London all surely shaped the character of the man and influenced his two most famous novels Animal farm and 1984. The way that he wrote about life is what is so great about Orwell. You don’t have to be a genius to understand what he is saying.
Orwell placed heavy emphasis, especially with Newspeak in 1984, on the ability of language to be used as a form of manipulation by forces that aim to control the masses. This issue is particularly relevant in our current era of the internet and ‘big data’. Surveillance has now reached disturbing depths with phone hacking, military drones and data-mining of individuals through social media activity. Language is also effected by social media and the digital age. Jargon, abbreviations and texting slang all draw comparisons with Orwell’s concept of Newspeak from 1984. It is a tribute to the man that his message has endured and become more telling in recent times. Orwell deserves our attention now more than ever.
1984 by George Orwell is a Headlong and Nottingham Playhouse Theatre production.
Tom Bone: Co-editor at Consensus44