A Stage Adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 is Touring Australia
The dystopian tale holds up a mirror to today’s society.
When Kellyanne Conway, advisor to President Donald Trump, used the term “alternative facts” to address conflicting coverage between the White House and news media on the size of the inauguration crowd, George Orwell’s 1984 shot to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list.
Parallels were drawn with 1984’s “doublethink”, the idea that “two contradictory beliefs can exist at the same time” and “Newspeak”, Orwell’s fictional language designed to limit freedom of thought.
As relevant now as ever, the Olivier Award-nominated stage production of Orwell’s classic novel is hitting our shores for a four-month run. It has been adapted and directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, along with Australian associate director Corey McMahon.
Spearheaded by the State Theatre Company of South Australia, the eight-person, all-Australian cast will perform in Adelaide, Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Perth. It comes off the back of three seasons on London’s West End and a sold-out season at the 2015 Melbourne Festival. It’s also slated to open on Broadway in June.
The stage show was added to this year’s program in early 2016, almost a year before Trump’s election. “[But] it became even more relevant after the fact,” says Sydney-based actor Ursula Mills, who plays one of the lead characters, Julia.
It projects a “dystopian vision of a surveilled and totalitarian world” in which an omniscient figurehead – Big Brother – is always watching. The repressive government denounces free speech and independent thought, using the manipulation of language and history as a vehicle of control. The story plays out through the eyes of Winston (played by Tom Conroy), a low-ranking member of “the Party” grappling with its oppressive regime. He’s having an affair with Julia who walks the line between rebellion and compliance. She represents “everything he isn’t”.
“1984 [is] relevant – not just because of the election – but because of the state of surveillance at the moment, with social media and the idea that everything we do leaves a digital footprint,” says Mills. “We can’t be anonymous anymore.”
In 2013, US Senator Bernie Sanders thrust the novel into the modern day, alluding to a looming “Orwellian future” for America in response to Edward Snowden’s leaking of classified National Security Agency files.
“When the [Snowden] case was exposed and then all the Wikileaks stuff … people became more conscious of [surveillance],” says Mills. “The fact that we are [more conscious] and we’re still not taking it into account in our daily behaviour is fascinating.”
The concept of “fake news” and its proliferation have become commonplace under the Trump presidency. “We live in a society where people own the media and they’re able to say ‘this is what you should be thinking,” says Mills. It’s eerily reminiscent of the fact-doctoring and censorship that plays out in Orwell’s nation of Oceania.
“It’s a nature versus nurture thing,” says Mills, with a blue cup in-hand. “This is blue, right? That’s my truth. But if you were brought up to believe that colour was actually green, that’s your truth. Both truths can exist at the same time.”
Everything is open to interpretation in Icke and Macmillan’s adaptation, which pushes past the boundaries of reality into surrealism, aided by a multi-camera audio-visual component.
While it’s loyal to Orwell’s nearly 70-year-old novel, the 101-minute contemporary re-imagining “isn’t as linear” as its predecessor. With no interval, “It’s not like a traditional play … it becomes this long continuous stream of thought,” says Mills. “You’ll sit there and think ‘is this now in [Winston’s] mind or is this actually playing out in real life?’”
She hopes it will leave audiences “curious” about their digital footprint and information sources. “[It’s] not a nice, cosy matinee,” she laughs. Rather, a thought-provoking quasi-social commentary that’s stood the test of time.
May 31 to June 10
June 28 to July 22