Gavin Spokes in rehearsal. Photo: Manuel Harlan.
Since its publication in 1949, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has become one of the most popular and iconic novels of all time. It was named Britain’s eighth favourite novel in the 2003 BBC Big Read survey, it appears on countless lists of must-read books, is one of the top ten most searched books on the internet and remains a staple of school syllabuses and reading lists across the world. In his review of 1984 for the New York Review of Books, Timothy Garton Ash calls it ‘indispensable for understanding modern history’.
The adjective ‘Orwellian’ has become a modern shorthand for describing totalitarian control and constant surveillance. Concepts like ‘Big Brother’ have been adopted into common parlance and, even more insidiously, the idea has given rise the whole notion of reality television. US Senator Bernie Sanders recently warned of an ‘Orwellian future’ when responding to the rise of Wikileaks and the release of classified NSA files by Edward Snowden. It seems the novel has never been more prescient.
But how does one set about adapting a book with such a weight of cultural history and influence behind it?
Even before the first day of rehearsals, co-creators Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan had been researching, writing and workshopping the project for almost a year. The idea itself had come long before, with the aim of continuing Headlong’s intention to interrogate and re-interpret classic texts (following productions including Paradise Lost, Six Characters in Search of an Author, Medea and Romeo & Juliet). Permission was obtained from the Orwell estate for a brand new and radical adaptation. The aim, Robert and Duncan told the assembled cast on the first day, would be to interpret the novel while accurately capturing its inherent ambiguities and presenting them in a theatrical form.
Most of the first day of rehearsals was spent trying to collate our understanding of the cultural impact of Nineteen Eighty-Four. What are our preconceptions of the novel, or more specifically, what do we expect to see in a production of it? The immediate responses - boiler suits, Big Brother, marching in unison, grey concrete, war, Room 101 - were predictable and, for the most part, correct. The fact that even those who hadn’t read the novel could give an accurate summary of its content showed just how culturally pervasive it is. Robert and Duncan contended, however, that our initial responses were just the tip of the iceberg.
The novel is riddled with ambiguities, repetitions, inconsistencies and chronological imperfections. This is especially true if you take Orwell’s enigmatic Appendix to the novel into account. Who is Winston writing for, and when? How many of the characters can we trust? How much of Winston’s own narrative can we believe? Reading the novel is a fluid process where our notions of truth and reality are constantly challenged. It is also a terrifying vision of a future which many would contend is already upon us.
The adaptation is essentially a piece of new writing, and so the next stage of the process was to try and interrogate the text. Duncan and Robert announced their intention to keep working on the script over the week. They wanted to explore the strength of both its content and its structure. Discussions were initiated to find correspondences between the novel and both our personal responses to it and its relationship to contemporary ideologies. These were often intentionally provocative: Can one person really change the world? Are all selfless acts ultimately motivated by a selfish desire for recognition?
The whole play was unpicked from start to finish. The novel was referenced to elaborate in more detail on moments in the script that had been distilled and concentrated during the process of adaptation. Various games were played to try and illuminate certain aspects, with the enigmatically named ‘Green Diamond Game’ wielding particularly fascinating results. Elaborate improvisations from the actors’ real lives were used to unlock some more of the text, and the reliability/unreliability of memory was assessed through tests and mental tasks. The cast were encouraged to lie to each other, phobias were confronted and dreams were analysed. All this was done in an attempt to map the ways in which our perception of reality is affected by various factors, including our subconscious, outside suggestion and intentional trickery.
Slowly, a disparate collection of relevant research was tacked up on the rehearsal room walls: articles or images which had been touched on during rehearsal; examples of Orwellian predictions come true. We explored everything from articles on advances in dream mapping – essentially reading thoughts – to statistics about mobile phone surveillance. It soon became apparent just how prophetic the novel was.
Re-writes continued throughout the week, with Robert and Duncan sitting down in the rehearsal room after the end of the day to re-work and polish the script in response to the day’s discoveries. New pages appeared the following morning ready for the process to start afresh again. This fluid way of working seems to echo the tone of the novel itself. Practically it allowed time to refine and reassess, in light of the company’s responses to certain exercises and to the play itself. On a more conceptual level, it also demonstrated to all involved the elusive scale and scope of Nineteen Eighty-Four - and exactly why it has continued to be so significant. The more you attempt to unpick the novel, the more it refuses to be defined by one single authoritative reading. It is everything you think it is and innumerable other things as well.