Headlong's acclaimed production of George Orwell's dystopian novel gets an all-Australian cast
“You’re seeing yourself reflected in it because it’s opaque,” says a character in Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s slippery and intriguing adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984. “It’s a mirror. Every age sees itself reflected.”
As the timelines layer and repeat within the production, and characters dissolve into each other, it becomes increasingly hard as an audience member to discern who said these lines or what it is, exactly, they’re speaking about. Is it someone in a book club, studying Orwell’s novel? Is it someone under the rule of the ideological Ingsoc, speaking about the rebellious book The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism? Or is it someone, hinted at in Orwell’s appendix to the novel, who has survived Ingsoc and rejected Newspeak, and is studying the remnants of Winston Smith’s diary from that fabled year?
We spend most of the play with Winston (Tom Conroy) as he uncomfortably navigates the regimented world of Oceania in 1984, but continually succumbs to its rules. When barked at by the voice from the telescreen, he obeys and bends over in an attempt to touch his toes. He goes to work and erases the records of people’s lives, shaping the past in the party’s favour. His rebellions are small, hidden, and largely inconsequential: in thoughtcrime, in a diary, in a secretive tryst.
Weaving the appendix through the text, Icke and Macmillan make explicit a crucial part of Orwell’s intent: the knowledge that this society can fall. But even so, Winston and Julia’s (Ursula Mills) secret relationship feels like a failure of subversion in every step. We’re told a kinder world will return – but not through these private sneers and secret thoughts.
Just as reading Orwell’s book invites the reader to reflect on the world of 1948 he was writing in, designer Chloe Lamford shows us an approximation of late ’40s London: a formal reading room of wooden panelling; cardigans and button-downs. The effect is to make us perceive Orwell’s imagined future simultaneously in our past and always just ahead; as audience members we’re invited to look backward and forward, all at once, imagining the world to be never learning from its mistakes.
This classic and practical design is augmented by the modern theatrical trappings of Natasha Chivers’ lighting – blinding us or plunging us into darkness – and Tom Gibbons’ sound, reverberating out from the stage and across the auditorium, or featuring nothing more than the eerie tick of a clock. With video (Tim Reid) projected above the stage, we are always reminded of Big Brother’s eyes, but it is only as Julia and Winston occupy their secret room – off stage and believing themselves to be away from prying computer eyes – that we in the audience become Big Brother, watching their unfolding relationship writ large on screens.
Throughout, Icke and Macmillan play with visual stage trickery: bodies seem to switch as they pass behind walls; the simple act of placing a young girl on stage in this adult world feels disarming; we watch the utter destruction of Lamford’s set. Like all people living under Ingsoc, we are shown a construct. We see what they want us to see; we know what they want us to know.
There is an awkwardness and stiffness to most of the cast, whose performances in this local iteration are directed by the associate director of the Australian tour, Corey McMahon. The exceptions are Conroy, whose naturalistic performance conveys his inner pain, and Terence Crawford, as the stoic O’Brien, who is in total control. The awkwardness exists, perhaps, to mimic the discomfort of Newspeak: as verbal language is shrunk, so too is physical language; as physical language is monitored, it becomes studied and regimented.
But it is crucial to Orwell’s 1984 that Newspeak has not yet become the primary language; that most people within his dystopian future use a language that allows for complexity. By depicting even the ostensibly sympathetic Julia as awkward and stiff, the work carries sense of coldness that permeates not only through the politics of Orwell’s authoritarian society, but even those who could be our rebels. On stage, perhaps, Oceania is too mannered for us to connect with.
Icke and Macmillan’s adaptation – often directly using Orwell’s language – functions as an inquiry into the book: how do we remember it, and how can it shift under stage lights? It’s often a rich analysis – but sometimes the book doesn’t hold up to the pressure of this staging. At times, amongst the flash and the noise, 1984 feels too much like a thriller – crafted simply to entertain.
The work’s real-world mirrored reflection isn’t dwelt upon or made explicit (and given that this production premiered in 2013, it’s almost impossible now to remember the work would have been reflecting at that time). Now, the mirrored reflection is of Trump, Brexit, Syria, Nauru. Or, for those on the opposite side of the political spectrum, almost certainly something else. Any real-world contemporary comparisons are there because we place them there. The work feels relevant, like a warning – but mostly that is the mirror speaking.
In Orwell’s book, a totalitarian government attempts to suppress dissent by narrowing down language to shut down thought. But Orwell’s book expanded our language: even for those who haven’t read 1984, Newspeak, doublethink, Big Brother all now influence the way we understand and talk about the world. 1984 becomes a mirror because Orwell empowered us with a new language to appropriate into our lives as we fit the words around our world. After Trump’s election, sales of 1984 rose, as people again turned to it to understand their world. But the book’s existence in shops or presence on stage crucially does one thing: it disproves Orwell’s thesis. Because at least for today, we are still able to imagine.
This production of 1984 was reviewed at the Australian Premiere at State Theatre Company of South Australia.