1984, Scorpio Theatre- Pumphouse Theatre, Calgary

press release1

The cast of 1984, photo by Ian Pond

In 1945, George Orwell reimagined the events leading to the Russian revolution in his novel “Animal Farm”, capturing the precarious power struggles of the time. The farm yard politics simultaneously mirrored and deconstructed our understanding of ourselves and our relationship with political structure- animals, easily manipulated by a cruel and futile hierarchical society. But it would be his next novel, 1984 , which would solidify the term “Orwellian” as the epitimy of highly political, bleakly dystopian science fiction literature. In uncertain post-war times, the world looked to his nightmarish novels for clues from the future.

Orwell, an Englishman, had seen unprecedented political shifts in post-WWII Europe. The prestigious Imperial Power of Britannia fell from its ancient pedestal as immediate threats to her people and principles enforced fundamental change. Unprecedented power was entrusted to a select few in government, extreme austerity measures altered rights and enforced rationings across the country, and her national identity struggled to rise from the ashes. As the Cold War set in for the long haul, mistrust and suspicion fed the terror of so many unknowns.

Just as the “cult of personality” had allowed Hitler and Stalin to embody their respective regimes, fit for consumption and worship from the masses, so did Churchill bask in the afterglow of delivering his beloved Britain from the murderous hands of Hitler. Orwell’s obsession with Stalin glares up at us from the pages of Animal Farm- one has to wonder which characteristics of his totalitarian leader Big Brother are gleaned from Churchill, and which from Hitler.

It bears mentioning that the  “cult of personality” is having an obvious resurgence. Britain is again uncertain about its place in the world, so naturally the film industry has flooded our Netflix feeds with no fewer than 4 films\series (since the Brexit referendum) featuring Churchill as the ultimate patriotic, patriarchal hero of the nation. And, never to be outdone, no one could ignore America’s identity crisis and how the cult of celebrity influenced the election of their current government head.

Our global society is once again at a turning point, and although Orwell set 1984 in a future which is now past, we turn to it once more for prophecies on our eventual demise. Like a clouded crystal ball, we follow the author to his secluded retreat on Scotland’s west coast, for it was on the remote island of Jura where the ever watchful gaze of Big Brother first began peering through the sea mist, hell-bent on scouring the hearts and minds of citizens for thoughtcrimes and treasons against the state of Oceania.

That is why Scorpio Theatre’s production of this stage adaptation is so important. It is still, and I regret to say will always be, a cautionary tale for the ages and a touchstone in times of great unrest. The Orwellian elements are not compromised in the play version and the concept which reorchestrates the original plot is lean and effective. Michael Gene Sullivan’s brilliant adaptation is ably delivered by director Matt Pickering, presenting Orwell’s complex and deeply problematic political questions in a streamlined and economical, but no less potent, production.

 It is rare to have a director like Pickering, who respects his audiences ability to listen. Most don’t trust us or their playwrights enough. They rely instead on spectacle sledgehammers or spoon fed symbolism. Pickering’s direction, however, allows the material to speak for itself. Yes, the propaganda machine is an undeniable presence as the austere INGSOC union flags hang against the studio’s brick walls and the obligatory screens routinely trumpet “Victory” while flashing war-time images to remind us we are in the loving, omniscient presence of Big Brother. Patrick Murray’s sound design is also vital to the world of the play as the voice of a mysterious governement agent interrogates over a loud speaker for 80% of the show. Otherwise, the production is appropriately sparse and severe, drawing attention to the driving point of the parable. It is our minds that are the most dangerous tool, and through the power of words and thought and human interaction, they can achieve anything. I am thankful to Pickering for respecting his audience’s ability to engage with their minds, even if he means to corrupt them.

Sullivan’s restructuring of the plot begins at the end- in the Ministry of Love, a place where thought criminals are imprisioned and interrogated by government officials bent on brainwashing their treasons out of them. 6079 Smith is one such inmate and we witness his trial as four government workers re-enact moments from his life, mostly lifted from his confiscated diary, in the hopes of showing him the error of his ways and breaking down his concept of reality.

Prisoner 6079 Smith, played by a suitably desperate and breathless Darcy Wilson, was once Citizen Winston Smith, an editor for the Ministry of Truth. He knows the disturbing accuracy of the maxim “He who controls the present, controls the past” as he edits old newspaper articles, falsifying (ie correcting) the “facts” which have changed perspective since publication. This is one of Orwell’s most chilling predictions. Winston lives in a permanently changing Wikipedia-style archive, where Fake News supplants previously published material in order to bring history in line with the propaganda peddled by the current regime. Is Oceana at war with East Asia or EurAsia- Well, it doesn’t matter anyway.

“The essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives but of the products of human labor…a way of [disposing] of materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent… War, it will be seen, accomplishes the necessary destruction, but accomplishes it in a psychologically acceptable way… War is Peace”. So says The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, a work by Oceania’s political vigilante Emmanuel Goldstein.

While at a rally for Hate Week in his local square, Winston meets and becomes sexually involved with another citizen who shares his secret disdain for Big Brother. Winston and Julia spend months secretly dismanteling the personal boundaries this austere society has brainwashed into them. As they discover more about each other and themselves and how to bring about rebellion, they fall in love- although Winston insists Julia is merely “a rebel from the waist down”. They make a pact with a governement double agent, O’Brian, and wind up with the rebel Goldstein’s manifesto in their possession. But, predictably, Big Brother’s hidden network of telecoms and microphones finds them, and Winston’s tell-all diary.

We see all of these occurrences in hindsight of course, from the depressing interogation room, re-enacted by government agents. “Julia” is not actually Julia. There is another agent impersonating the “character” of “Winston” before his very eyes. And yet, as these events unfold, the agents begin to lose themselves in Winston’s world, and so do we. Such is the realism of an effective brainwashing trial.

At first, the agents are fully committed to putting 6079 Smith in his proper place, as a traitor and a criminal.   However, throughout the trial, the cracks begin to show. Certain excerpts from Winston’s diary seem to ring true for them on a private, human level. Especially as they re-enact Winston receiving Goldstein’s manifesto, reading from the genuine article which they hold in their very hands. They are shocked as they act it out, astonished to be holding this unholy book of treasons which has passed through the hands of so many rebels, dumbfounded to be asked to read the excerpts aloud, and positively stupified when some of them begin to empathize, out of character, with the radical ideas proposed within its tattered pages.

It is in this interplay between the private and the public mind that is the triumph of the play. The ensemble of government agents become more and more human as the story unfolds, betraying the homogenous mass they represent by slowly revealing individualism. Tanis Laatsch is particularly fascinating to watch as she “plays” Julia; fully engrossed in moments of intimacy and passion, cold and calculative when out of “character”, but ultimately conflicted within herself as she begins to listen to Goldstein’s words, as she loses herself in Winston’s story, as she realizes the implications of her work at the Ministry of Love.

This play will terrify and astonish audiences, but in all its dark parallels with our current world, one cannot help but leave the experience full of hope. So long as we have agency in our own thoughts (despite the encroaching surveillance of drones and secret microphones and third parties sharing our private information), so long as we can continue to express our ideas and share our personal views, we are free. When communication fails us, truth fails us. When we lose our mastery of language, our thoughts will become as one-dymentional as any meme.

As this blog deals with words, I will leave you with one more Orwellian moment; this time, from one of Winston’s colleagues at the Ministry of Truth who has the unenviable task of revising the dictionary, currently in it’s eleventh edition:

“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words… what justification is ther for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word. A word contains its opposite in itself. Take “good”- what need is there for a word like “bad”, “ungood” will do just as well…what sense is there in having a whole string of vague, useless words like “excellent” and “splendid” and all the rest of them, “plusgood” covers the meaning, or “doubleplusgood” if you want something stronger still…Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year…the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought. In the end we shall make thoughtcrime litereally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it”.

1984 plays at the Pumphouse Theatre from now until March 10th. Tickets and info at www.scorpio.ca