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Book Tickets

1984 – Getting to the Heart of the Text Close

Duška Radosavljević | Aug. 10, 2015

What are possible relationships between text and performance? Some sixty years ago the British philosopher Raymond Williams, troubled by the way in which the development of print had turned a moving and open art into something ‘relatively static’, discerned four potential relationships between the words on the page and their potential staging. At one end of the sliding scale is ‘acted speech’, where the full detail of the performance is seen to be prescribed, and at the other end is a relationship based on interpretation/ a ’response to the text’/ an act of adaptation. The two stages in between allow for a gradual privileging of physical movement over text . In 1954 Williams’s thinking was very much ahead of its time. The discipline of Performance Studies, which emancipated the art of theatre and performance from English Literature, and which was to some extent indebted to Williams’s writings – was yet to be created a decade later, and much of the theatre production in the English-speaking world oscillated around the ‘acted speech’ end of the scale. The idea of the director as an author had not yet taken hold in the British context. Some might argue that in the 21st century this is still not the case in a theatre culture founded on a magnificent legacy of a poet, whereby text is seen to have the ultimate supremacy, and a certain expectation of ‘fidelity’ to it has always prevailed. It is interesting to note that the UK directors who have been drawn to the adaptation end of Williams’s scale – such as Mike Alfreds, Katie Mitchell, Emma Rice – have perhaps come closest to the European equivalent of an auteur, discovering in the process the notion of fidelity, not to the word, but to the spirit of the text. Rice as an adaptor and former actor, for example, offers a particularly illuminating perspective on this issue by privileging her ‘emotional memory’ of the original over the ‘original text’ itself.

In considering Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 it is perhaps insightful to revisit two other previous examples of a directorial approach to this particular story of betrayal.

In 2001, Alan Lyddiard, the then Artistic Director of Northern Stage in Newcastle-upon-Tyne adapted and co-directed a version with the choreographer/film-maker Mark Murphy. There were several reasons Lyddiard chose this text: an ongoing fascination with Orwell’s work (Lyddiard had previously made a successful touring production of Animal Farm with the Northern Stage Ensemble), the fact that the reality TV programme Big Brother, which started in 2000, had had a considerable impact on the popular imagination, and the fact that the generation born in 1984 was seen to be growing up largely politically disenfranchised. In 2002 this generation would be old enough to vote and this piece of theatre was intended to stimulate their political sentiments. In accompaniment to the run, the theatre organised a conference which brought together local politicians with those born in 1984 in a political debate. Part of the purely aesthetic agenda was the developing company vocabulary of the Northern Stage Ensemble. In addition to the acclaimed Animal Farm the company had also created a successful touring version of A Clockwork Orange. Newcastle was a traditionally working class city which had suffered an economic dip since the 1980s but, tucked away in the North East corner of the country, it had a strong sense of a local identity. Rooted in its Geordie context, the Northern Stage ensemble was predominantly male and this resulted in a characteristic sports-like dynamism. There was a strong emphasis on visceral corporeality and the visual effect of the work, rather than a veneration of the literary text itself. One of the slogans the company used in advertising the production, alongside those from the book itself, was the designation of this adaptation as a ‘digitally remixed version’ of the original. Alfred Hickling’s review in the Guardian, which branded the production as ‘double-plus-good’, also encapsulated the company aesthetic as follows:

Not so much a rep as a total theatre-machine, Northern Stage specialises in techno-drama for the digital age, which can make old-fashioned analogue theatre-going seem very tame by comparison.

Lyddiard made no secret of the fact that the French Canadian director Robert Lepage was one of the influences on his work – especially in this production where he used film as a constituent element of the mise-en-scene. The footage was made in Moscow (because it was felt that this was the closest it got to capturing the reality of the downtrodden ‘prols’ against the backdrop of overpowering architecture) and the set consisted of a series of large-scale revolving panels used for projections, which were being manipulated by the actors themselves. Neil Murray’s design was stark and monochromatic – the actors wore grey overalls and the clinical aspect of Room 101 was depicted mostly in plain white, but this served to offset the blistering intensity of the physical action on stage and film. The show went on to receive the Manchester Evening News award for the best touring production and Lyddiard’s script has been used for a long-running production in Paris and for a schools tour in the US.

While Lyddiard’s 1984 could be seen to have willfully occupied the interpretation end of Williams’s scale, it might come as a surprise to know that Robert Lepage’s own version was in the director’s own words ‘extremely faithful to the book’ especially in terms of its staging. Truth be told this was an opera project initiated by Lorin Maazel, an internationally renowned conductor debuting as a composer on this occasion. The libretto was commissioned from the American writers J.D. McClatchy and Thomas Meehan who followed the credo that ‘any libretto's first obligation is to provide musical opportunities for the composer’. For Lepage as the director this meant that the working process was reversed – at the outset the singers, unlike the actors, immediately had all the access to the subtext through the music itself, and opera as a form demanded that the director had to ‘favour the voice’ rather than the set or the concept. Nonetheless, most of the collaborators agreed that 1984 as a novel landed itself well to opera – in Lepage’s view, because it is ‘a tragedy about humanity being under the burden of some external force’.

Maazel/Lepage’s 1984 premiered at the Royal Opera house in London in 2005, just as those born in 1984 were turning 21. Its topicality was additionally found in the lasting global impact of the Al Quaeda bombing of the World Trade Centre in 2001. Visually the medium of opera made possible the notion of oppression through large choral scenes – Lepage’s ‘prols’ too wore drab uniforms, and film was once again deployed to conjure up the culture of surveillance. However, the production did not meet with critical approval. It was dismissed largely on the basis of its musical credentials, although the stagecraft and some individual performances were praised. Interestingly, however, reviewer Marc Bridle located the reason for its failure in the fact that ‘little attempt ha[d] been made in this production to tell the story other than it is’. In other words, the production was perhaps trying to be a little too faithful to the original text for its own good.

Icke and Macmillan’s approach to the text could be seen to fall somewhere in between the two noted above.

On the one hand, Icke has emphasized the importance of the visceral effect of the work on the audience in trying to ‘capture the spirit of the book’, on the other, the team’s way into the work was through a very close reading of the text itself – more specifically, the often neglected appendix to the novel which outlines the principles of Newspeak. What captured the adapters’ imagination is the conundrum created by the fact that the Appendix talks about the year 1984 (and even the year 2050) in the past tense. It implies that the dystopian world of the novel did not survive and, to some extent, destabilises the authenticity of Winston Smith’s own diary too. If such colossal efforts had been undertaken to eradicate ‘crimethink’ through language, how is it possible that Smith’s diary did survive? Was Smith real, and who is the author of the Appendix anyway?

Icke and Macmillan therefore frame their adaptation through a book club meeting which discusses Winston Smith’s diary, and strikingly, raises the deeply penetrating question ‘What was 1984 like?’. Some thirty years after the fateful year itself which saw the miners’ strikes in the North East of England (incidentally, the birthplace of Icke) and the apex of the iron-fisted rule of Margaret Thatcher, this work is also a response to another moment of popular struggle under the Conservative government and its politics of ‘Austerity’.

Unsurprisingly, the production was a big hit with the critics. Dominic Cavendish , who had disliked Northern Stage’s version of the novel for its brashness, heaped five stars on this one praising it for its re-reading of the novel as ‘fit-for-purpose in the 21st century’.

In some ways this production does follow in the tradition of British theatre and its esteem for the text. Icke had honed his craft on Shakespeare with a company he had set up as a teenager in Stockton-on-Tees before going to Cambridge – and this influence shines through in the most positive way. There is a strong interest in metatheatricality, in the power of language to prompt our imagination and in the ‘here and now’ of live theatre. As the show opens, Winston writes today’s date in his diary (whatever today’s date might be). Even the film is used in a very different way from Lyddiard and Lepage. The footage that might look to us to be pre-recorded is soon revealed to be being broadcast live and its function is surprisingly linked to heightening intimacy rather than a sense of persecution. However, Icke and Macmillan’s work is equally indebted to the more European mode of theatrical authorship, at least in its ambition – there is a memorable coup de theatre scene involving Chloe Lamford’s meticulously naturalistic English interiors that would not be out of place on a Berlin stage. But most of all the European-style auteur sensibility is to be found in the director’s understanding of his relationship to the original text. In an interview he gave to Exeunt Icke has said that in getting to the heart of Orwell’s writing it was important to look at what his ‘gesture’ was and to ‘translate the idea’ rather than ‘copying and pasting’ his words.

In 1954 Raymond Williams observed that the problem of his time was the equation between drama and theatre which had created ‘walls’ around dramatic action and live performance. In 2013, Icke and Macmillan found a compelling justification within the text itself to tear those walls down.

Duška Radosavljević is a writer, dramaturg and lecturer based at the University of Kent.

Her books include Theatre-Making: Interplay Between Text and Performance in the 21st Century and The Contemporary Ensemble: Interviews with Theatre Makers .