George Orwell's '1984' at the STC

A version of this piece was published in Neighbourhood Paper.

Why resist? Why, when evil and bigotry and greed are relentless, insidious? This is the question asked in George Orwell’s ‘1984’, an adaption of which is playing at the Roslyn Packer Theatre. It’s not a pleasant watch – so why go see it?

A poster leading into the theatre claimed “To understand 2017, you have to see 1984”. It’s not a particularly convincing claim, considering that this production has been on the West End since 2014. This play isn’t tailor-made to explain Brexit, or Trump, or Jobik. Orwell’s vision is of a totalitarian state well advanced, whereas the current political malaise is still germinating – the rigid organisation of a state of terror has not yet come. Rather, the lessons in ‘1984’ are universal ones, and, at the risk of sounding idealistic, lessons that we should always bear in mind no matter who is President.

The first of two key lessons is that thought can be controlled in more ways than simple brainwashing. The first part of the play is carried by a frenetic, unnerving energy – scenes will be cut short by other scenes, timelines are hacked apart, explosions of light and sound punctuate moments of the play. Often, the theatre is thrown into pitch black for a few seconds, after which the light come on to reveal an entirely new scene. Other methods are used to wrong-foot the audience; at random points and for no apparent reason, the cast will simultaneously pause and swivel their heads in unison. An actor in the background will pull a face of pain, or will pour and scull a glass of wine. The result is genuinely unsettling, and leaves you unable to grasp the threads of story. That’s the point, of course: a totalitarian leader can never destroy an individual’s ability to think, but they can take away your ability to focus – which achieves the same result. 

The second lesson is more overt: the play is a dramatisation of the immense personal cost of taking a stand. The last 45 minutes of the production is an extended torture scene. Winston Smith sits strapped in the middle of the stage, the evil O’Brien paces around him, and three figures in white sit on either side. By this point Winston’s relationship with Julia – as flimsy as it already was – has been shattered. His body, too, is about to be violated. Winston will refuse to submit to O’Brien, and the figures in white will stand and walk to the table of implements. They’ll stand by Winston, and O’Brien will name a body part – “fingertips” – and the lights will plunge. They come up again and blood is smeared all over Winston’s hands. Some people left the theatre at this point, which was just as well; next are the teeth. 

We don’t go to the theatre for realism, and I’m not going to suggest that speaking out in 2017 will have consequences as bloody as this. But one measure of social domination is the extent to which people fear to voice a different opinion. You don’t need to cut out the opposition’s tongues if the opposition keep their tongues in their mouths; you don’t need to rebuke someone if they’re already too afraid of the rebuke. The powers that be have won when the personal cost of speaking out, of holding a diverse opinion, becomes too great. Genuine political dissent can never be monolithic; encouraging diversity of thought is itself a form of resistance.

The play version of ’1984’ coincides with a the release of a new edition of the book, published by Black Inc. and introduced by Dennis Glover. In that introduction, Glover tells the story of the book’s lasting ambiguity, which revolves around a scene towards the end of the book. Winston has been tortured and released, and is sitting in a cafe awaiting his rearrest and execution. "Almost unconsciously," Orwell writes, "he traced with his finger in the dust on the table …" The first print edition, published in 1949, has Winston writing ‘2+2=5’. The sum signifies his utter domination; his beliefs align with Big Brother’s, his submission is soul-deep.

George Orwell died in 1951, but not before a second edition of the book was released. In that version, Winston writes ‘2+2= ‘. The ‘5’ is missing, and the human heart has not capitulated. For a long, long time, it was unknown whether this revision was deliberate or accidental – the going theory was that the metal block of type for ‘5’ fell out during the reprint. In Glover’s introduction, he makes a strong case for the missing ‘5’ being Orwell’s intention; the idea being that Orwell died hopeful that the spirit of humankind was indomitable. But I prefer the ambiguity; it allows us to decide if we’re an optimist or a pessimist; it allows us to decide if we think the victory of evil is inevitable, or whether the uphill battle towards openness and tolerance and love is worthwhile. The choice is always up to us. 

Alex Tigheorwell, 1984, theatre