Following the first week of rehearsals, I sat down to reflect with Associate Director Daniel Raggett, who is redirecting 1984 in conjunction with Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan for this West End return. I was particularly interested to discuss the place of our production in relation to other incarnations of this adaptation. In a pleasantly doublethink way, it is essentially something simultaneously brand new and pre-existing.
Daniel spoke passionately about the audience itself being the motivation for a return to the West End. In addition to the novel, this adaptation, as a play, is now a set text in schools. Robert and Duncan have created “the only adaptation which deals with the appendix” and Daniel is consequently passionate about creating this again for more audiences to see. Daniel is part of the original team – and for him this production represents another “chance to take it [the production] to the next level”. Daniel also articulates this as a satisfying echo of the play; “considering that the appendix is all about putting the main text of the novel under a microscope, and this adaptation is about putting both under a microscope, it seems fitting to add another layer to that investigation.”
Speaking to Daniel, Robert and Duncan fills the rehearsal room with a mutual excitement.I have often heard Robert talk about his desire to make theatre which would be interesting to the 15 year old version of himself, as well as more regular theatre goers. He is conscious of the tough competition theatre now has in demanding the time, attention, and money of audiences. We now all have access to endless movies, collections of music, and seemingly exhaustive libraries of books from the comfort of our own homes. Even our phones can give us access to films and box-sets from around the world and across the decades, so how does theatre compete? It just isn’t as convenient. Daniel shares this drive. He wants to show audience - particularly new audiences - that “theatre can be exciting, and can be vital, and can be an experience which is unique because it really is a live experience.” He is keen to disprove the assumption
of many students of those who may be alien to the theatre that it is “boring people in weird costumes, shouting at each other from a distance.” This show is anything but.
Daniel also emphasises the nature of theatre as an experience. “It’s one of the last places left where we all sit in a room, and have a collective experience; so we want to make the point that theatre has its place, in amongst Netflix, and that there’s a reason to leave your house, sit with strangers, and experience something surprising or interesting in the same moment as them.” The hope is that the audience will leave wanting to go to the theatre more, or even to make theatre themselves. In terms of the source material, the hope is that the audience will leave having been subjected to “a true experience of the whole work.” The ignorance of many readers as to the existence of the appendix, and therefore its place in unpicking the whole structure of the novel, and proving the central tenant that the written word cannot be trusted, remains a source of consternation for the creative team; “we’re motivated by that to bring a certain rigour.”
After an exciting first week of rehearsals, where we worked to build ideas about levels of reality, and a sense of the world of the play, Daniel is enthusiastic about the effect a new cast is having on the text. “They are encouraging an existing production to evolve into something fresh,” and it is a live process which we are guiding and building all of the time. Even he, who knows the play so well, is enjoying exploring it again and seeing some parts anew; “in a piece which is a lot about how you focus the lens, it’s interesting to bring a different set of eyes and minds to something which is in essence the same, but when exposed to their interpretation and their creativity, shifts into something new and fresh. In a doublethink way – it is new and different, yet the same.”
I asked Daniel about his experience of touring the show to Australia and America. Specifically, I wondered whether he had noted different audience reactions, or whether he knew what to predict from audiences as it returns to The Playhouse Theatre. The simple answer, imparted to me with glee, was no to both questions: “I think there is an expectation that people might think ‘Americans react in a particular way because of Trump…’ - and when we were in Washington DC being in close proximity to the White House during the presidential primaries certainly added a flavour to the show - but the fundamental answer is actually much more interesting and complicated than that. For me to say that yes, Australians react differently to Americans, would be to apply a lazy generalization to a diverse group of people. To be unspecific. Exactly what Orwell is trying to arm us to guard against. The reactions are most notable individual to individual and we as a company kept looking for more general patterns in responses, but never found any. It’s a collective experience to which you have a personal response. You can believe that Winston is a hero, whilst sitting next to someone else who believes that he is a terrorist. And wherever we go, that is the same.”
As we embark on the second week of rehearsals, I am energised by the commitment from the original and lead creatives to this production. They are inspired by another brilliant cast taking on their work, and keen to use this as an opportunity to develop it further. They are open to the possibility that, like the vocabulary of Newspeak, the script may shrink a bit, sections may be re-written and new interpretations may appear. I spoke to Daniel about how in Europe, where the rep system is still strong, “they have a really healthy attitude towards bringing a new company of actors into something which already exists, whereas in Britain we can often look down on this and deify the original.” He sees this as a strength which we must emulate here; “they have more faith in themselves, and their own abilities to bring some sort of uniqueness and challenge to a part, even if they’re standing exactly where a previous actor stood. For them it’s not about where you stand on the stage or whether the stage looks the same; rather it’s about the experience you have while getting inside it, and while performing it. I definitely believe in the value of both of those experiences; the making and the remaking, and hope that this production can reflect that.”