Monday 28 October 2013

1984 – Headlong, Richmond Theatre

[seen 25/10/13]

How do you adapt an appendix? This seems to be the chief question at the heart of the new adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four *created by* Rob Icke and Duncan Macmillan.

I emphasise “created by” since I think it is vital to recognise at the outset that although Icke’s prior credits are primarily those of “director”, and Macmillan’s more usually “playwright”, that is not the stated relationship here.

In a foreword of fierce intelligence, Icke and Macmillan set out their rationale thus:
The ending of George Orwell’s final novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, is notoriously bleak. ‘If you want a picture of the future’, Winston has been told, ‘imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.’ Sitting in a café, defeated, drunk and waiting for a bullet, he loves his oppressor. Winston loves Big Brother. As we all know, that’s the end of the story. 
Except it isn’t. 
After ‘THE END’, there is an Appendix. ‘The Principles of Newspeak’, that many of the novel’s readers miss altogether...
Icke and Macmillan go on to point out that this appendix – so vital to the book as a whole, that Orwell refused to allow an American publisher the rights to publish his text without it – is written from a fictional vantage point *beyond* the end of the story. It refers to Newspeak in the past tense and even makes a single glancing reference to Winston Smith. What Orwell says with this fictional appendix is that Big Brother too will fall. The year 2050 is given as the date by which the Party imagines that Newspeak will have been finally adopted: “The final word of the Appendix (and of the novel) is ‘2050’.” And, in a rather neat touch, the foreword ends: “R.I. And D.M. September 2050”.

So, one of the things that Icke and Macmillan are exploring with their new and, let’s be honest, penetrating analysis of the text is what we do with a novel *called* Nineteen Eighty-Four, written in 1948, in 2013. (Happily it has just been announced that it will transfer to The Almeida for Feb 2014 – just in time to hit the West End for a bright cold day in April, one may cynically infer.) Moreover, what do we do with this novel; a novel that has at once given us a vocabulary through which we now partly explain the world (“Orwellian”, “Big Brother”, etc.) and, at the same time, analysis which seems to be all but ignored.

What Icke and Macmillan’s create about as excellent a solution to the problem as I can imagine. They open the piece in a reading group in 2050. It is a popular cliché that “difficult” theatre should teach you how to watch it. This isn’t “difficult theatre”, but here it does present one of the clearest user-guides to how a piece of theatre wants to be read I’ve ever seen. By at once appearing to discuss Winston Smith’s diary, the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four and indeed Headlong’s 1984 characters explain:
“This is a text which is directly, forcefully attempting to speak to us. Its author imagines a future – imagines us – and asks us to listen” 
“This document occupies a unique place in our collective subconsciousness – even if you’ve never read it.” 
“You’re seeing yourself reflected in it because it’s opaque. It’s a mirror. Every age sees itself reflected.”
Icke and Macmillan are conducting an exercise in historicism, of adaptation and of adoption. One of the most striking things about their adaptation – which, after this opening scene, is actually a pretty straight walk-through of the main plot points as they happen in the book (or at least, as I remember it – which is perhaps another cleverness of their adaptation: that they’ve adapted the memory of the book as much as the book itself) – is the extent to which they’ve happily modernised certain crucial fragments. Where the reading group talks about “Austerity, unpopular politics, perpetual war, uncertainty // oppression, torture, uprisings, revolution” they evoke precisely the world we have been reading about in the newspapers on the train to Richmond. Elsewhere, they completely strike the p-word (“proles”) and in doing so dismantle one of Winston Smith’s most famous lines rather than allowing the shift in our understanding of that word now to unbalance our viewing of their piece. Refusing to let themselves present *1948* through laziness. Although this refusal of a Marxist vocabulary does also re-trench the piece’s politics somewhat.


If this first part of my review reads slightly as literary criticism, rather than performance criticism, then consider it primarily an example of form following form. An age-old criticism of British theatre is that our rehearsal rooms all too often resemble the English Literature seminar. Here, that seminar has been taken out of the rehearsal room and has been plonked squarely in the centre of the stage, and I would argue that it makes for a fairly vital night out, intellectually.

However, while it’s a long way from “talk, talk, talk”, I was slightly (and I do mean only slightly) less convinced by the stage-craft. The set (Chloe Lamford) is attractive and serviceable, occupying an exact mid-point between Marthaler’s Glaube, Liebe Hoffnung , Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz, and Katie Mitchell’s Reise Durch die Nacht (on which Macmillan also worked) – which as a checklist certainly gets a big thumbs-up from me. I suspect it also looks a lot better when one is not placed half way back in the circle. And designing for touring to myriad different-sized stages must be a nightmare. But the wood-panelled 1950s-looking room (possible hints of East German bureaucracy chic) where the majority of the piece was played didn’t quite do it for me. From where I was sitting. Even though it probably should have.

The Elevator Repair Service observation, by the way, is Trueman’s [edit: although young Hutton got there nine days before us], and I think he’s onto something there. There was certainly a faint hint of Gatziness about the way that the performers’ transition between notional times and spaces, being at once reading group in 2050 and inhabitants of 1984. The piece also made great, unfussy use of the hidden live-video-feed room (cf. Edward II, Gob Squad, Pollesch, Castorf, sort-of Mitchell, et al), although like the top half of the stage-picture being a giant Katie Mitchell video screen, it felt like there was possibly something a bit wonky with the semiotics of its use. Or rather, the videoed room backstage made perfect sense – although I wonder how many of the audience would have just assumed that it was pre-shot footage? Perhaps that assumption was the intention, since there is an excellent theatrical coup later involving the room’s discovery. I suppose I was slightly more perturbed by the way the giant screen was worked into the fabric of the room rather than being allowed to just be a screen. Of course, again, it makes a sort of sense and is possibly just two different, opposing arguments/schools-of-thought, I’m just not sure I fully bought its cunning inclusion personally – by making the screen part of the room when it fizzed to life, it seemed to implicate “2050” as much as “1984”. Had the screen just been a screen, we could have perhaps fitted it however we liked to where it “really” “existed” in relation to the stage instead of being told.

The most interesting performance motif is a repeated sequence of Ministry life in 1984 where the days are demonstrated to be stultifyingly the same, even when people are being disappeared. And when someone is even prepared to sit down at a table which isn’t there, rather than admit anything has changed. Watching this on stage, of course, you take a minute or two longer to catch up to this as a facet of double-think, since that’s what theatre has been asking us all to do since we first started going. Which, of course, makes the arguments about double-think all the more interestingly weird and compelling. Because we’re all sat in this theatre pretending that what’s happening on stage is somehow happening in a different reality, but that it’s really happening all the same.

At the same time, this unreality feedback loop is finely tuned to get us thinking about precisely how this book – these books if you include Smith’s diary – this story, these words resonate today. You’d have to be a sleepwalking idiot to have got through the piece and not thought once about Edward Snowden, the NSA, and Angela Merkel’s phone. In terms of surveillance Nineteen Eighty-Four has got our number. But actually, the most crucial thing about Orwell’s book isn’t really about the surveillance. It never was. The crucial thing is the concept of Thoughtcrime. The real battle the Party is fighting is with ideological dissent. Newspeak has been invented with the aim of making counter-revolutionary thought impossible.

What’s strange about Headlong’s production is the way that by pursuing all these thoughts to their logical end, and capturing them brilliantly on stage, albeit shorn of a lot of Orwell’s almost pedantic precision in matters ideological, what you are left with in the climatic episode of torture – the whole rats-on-face bit – is the realisation of how strange it is (here at least) for a socialist party’s (IngSoc are, after all, a parody of Stalin’s Russia, anticipating all the worst paranoid excesses of Soviet era eastern Europe) solution to dissent is to make Smith into the ultimate Rand-ian superman. In the end he rejects everything and everyone except himself. (“JULIA. JULIA. DO IT TO JULIA...” etc,). The idea that “Winston Smith loves Big Brother” has been toned right down. So, actually, this final scene feels strangely contradictory.

It strikes me that Icke and Macmillan may have bought a bit too hard into what strikes me as Orwell’s least useful suggestion: that love is somehow the ultimate tool of resistance. In this, as in his prediction of an “anti-sex league”, I think Orwell barks up precisely the wrong tree. Perhaps not the wrong tree for satirising Stalinism, but certainly the wrong tree for England and resonance today (in these respects, the hopelessness of Huxley’s Brave New World feels far more attuned). Here, we are reminded (again) of Pollesche’s maxim (I really must find out where he said it and what precisely he said) about wanting to talk to the capitalists about money and them only wanting to talk about love. There’s an interesting counter-example in yesterday’s Guardian where Steve Coogan, a bit like Orwell before him, asserts: “I had this notion that the most radical, avant-garde thing I could do was to talk about love. There's nothing that will make an intellectual's buttocks clench more than to talk about love.” Because obviously “intellectuals” are the real problem. And in no way is he basically picking up precisely the most mainstream, reactionary torch imaginable and running with it in spouting this sort of nonsense. But that’s kind of a whole other argument in itself.

So, to recap, this is – for the most part – an incredibly intelligent appropriation and exploration of the novel, and a first-rate answer about how to adapt it. Watching it, I was slightly surprised by the degree of radicalism that had been claimed for it in other quarters. In the main it struck me visually and acting-wise as quite safe, middle-of-the-road fare; well executed, and with plenty of room to let you consider the intellectual aspects, but rarely spectacular to look at. But, the more I’ve thought about it since watching it, the more the cleverness has stayed with me, and my surprise at the lack of sci-fi stageingness* has faded.

*re: “sci-fi” – it’s the term I’ve been using in my head more and more to describe/categorise/bunch-together the sort of theatre that I most love. I’m thinking of stuff like Katie Mitchell’s Attempts On Her Life, Ramin Gray’s The Ugly One, or Over There, or Illusions, Nübling’s Pornographie and Three Kingdoms, Karin Beier’s Trojan Women, Vicky Featherstone’s The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas; even things like Chris Haydon’s Grounded or Chris Goode’s Hippo World Guest Book.
 It’s not a good term. I should come up with something a bit better.

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