1984 takes Orwell's dystopian future into the present day


January 28, 2018

Renato Musolino Paul Blackwell Ursula Mills Tom Conroy Guy OGrady Fiona Press Yalin Ozucelik Shane Reid thumbnail copy 3

When theatre directors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan started work in 2013 to adapt George Orwell’s magnum opus 1984 for the stage, the current hot issues of fake news and data privacy, so prophetically mirrored in the 20th century dystopian tale, were only remote concerns.

But even five years ago, the evergreen themes in the Cold War novel — of government surveillance, objective truth, censorship — meant the production still cut close to the bone: as it turned out, the production premiered in the year American whistleblower Edward Snowden hit global headlines.

Associate director Corey McMahon explains why this very contemporary staging continues to resonate today and what audiences can expect in its exciting Southeast Asia premiere. Did the hot topics of the day — fake news, misinformation, etc. — inform the production process in anyway?

Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan have spoken of their commitment to honouring the book and ensuring they captured its formal and thematic complexities in a highly theatrical and very contemporary way. They didn’t set out to run a commentary on the world as it is now. Their mission was to translate the heart of Orwell’s book into a theatrical form. To do anything else would have been to undermine the power of the book and Orwell’s prescient vision.

It’s a pretty different world in 2018 compared with 2013. Has the production evolved since its debut?

When I started my association with the production mid-way 2016 in the UK, the Brexit result had just been announced and Donald Trump had decided to run in the Republican primaries. Fast forward to 2017, when we were rehearsing the play in Australia, the unthinkable – Donald Trump becoming President of the US – had happened and suddenly any news outlet reporting information contrary to what the Trump administration said was accused of peddling “fake news”.

By sheer coincidence as we were rehearsing our production in Adelaide, Robert and Duncan were revisiting the play for the first time since its inception for Broadway. This afforded them the opportunity to refresh the script and bring some of what we are now living through into the world of the play. And because the book (and by extension the play) continue to be relevant, it
meant any new additions to the script sat comfortably with what they had already adapted for the stage.

There seems to be a resurgence of interest in the Orwellian world painted in 1984 — the novel hit bestseller lists in the US last year. How do the creators feel the production can insert itself into current conversations?

I think this happened because people reached out for the book to gain some understanding of what was happening (Trump, alternate facts, government surveillance, etc.) and happening very quickly. The world has changed so rapidly since the production was created in 2013. Robert and Duncan could not have foreseen what was to come and yet it’s all there in the book!

There’s a wonderful line in the play that might be referring to Orwell’s novel that sums up the power of the book: Once you finish it, you become a different person. You don’t feel the same.
You don’t think the same. It changes everything and it will always be true. It’s a vision of the future no matter when its being read.

How have audiences responded to the production in the UK and in Australia?

Audiences have been very responsive in both countries and for the most part at the same points in the play. One moment that seems to generate a vocal response for almost every show is when (the character) O’Brien says: The people are not going to revolt. They will not look up from their screen long enough to notice what’s really happening.

The audience has a unique, Big Brother-like role to play in the production. I can’t give too much away — you’ll have to come along to see what I mean! — but the theme of constant surveillance plays a big role in our production and the audience will be very much complicit in this. So audiences respond to both the big moments, like O’Brien’s chilling summation of the world, and the more subtle elements where we, the audience, are in effect part of the show!

Let’s talk about the torture scenes. Is it true some audiences have not just walked out, but also fainted or vomited?

I think those reports are a bit exaggerated. Stories of the person vomiting failed to report the person was already ill (that’s my understanding of it). In answering your question more broadly, yes, some people have walked out, although not as many as may have been reported. The production doesn’t shy away from these scenes because it remains faithful to Winston Smith’s journey as written by Orwell. The psychological and physical interrogation of Winston is a significant part of the book. To ignore or dilute these scenes would be to undermine the novel and let the audience off the hook.

But it’s worth noting you really don’t see anything. We take the lights out before you see what is done to Winston. So really, the horror is what you imagine it to be. Not what we show you. There’s nothing as powerful as your own imagination!

1984 comes to Southeast Asia for the first time. What can audiences expect?

It’s a thrilling, powerful and audacious production. We reach out into the auditorium and give the audience a bit of a shake (only theatre can do that!). We see the whole play through Winston’s perspective so in a sense we experience what he experiences. Audiences will be as on edge as Winston is! Robert and Duncan were very keen to create a production that was as thrilling, as compelling and as contemporary as the latest Netflix series or platform computer game. The show is very much created for the next generation of theatre consumers as well as seasoned theatre-goers.

(Photo by Shane Reid)

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