Headlong's adaptation of 1984 explored (transcript)

The director Robert Icke and playwright Duncan Macmillan here talk to journalist and critic Dominic Cavendish about their mind-expanding, widely praised stage adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, simply styled 1984, and presented by Headlong on tour this autumn. Details at Headlong. A transcript of an audio interview excerpt that can be heard on http://www.theatrevoice.com. Recorded: 25-09-2013

Dominic Cavendish: The great thing about this adaption you’ve done of 1984 is the liberties it takes with a text that many people clearly regard highly but has in some ways possibly become over-familiar in its tone and I wanted to know what drew you to it in the first place. Some might say it’s a text that’s almost too familiar for its own good. What was the initial instinct that took you to it?

Robert Icke: It was a conversation that [director] Rupert Goold and I were having some time ago about different texts. Since Rupert started at Headlong there has been an ongoing project of looking at big important canonical texts with the imperative to ask the question:  why are these texts important, what have they got to say? There was a big list of novels, of which I for some reason was drawn to Nineteen Eighty-Four. We’d gone to the estate and said what are the chances of getting the rights to do a new version, we’d want to do a fairly free-ish new version, but as then we didn’t know what that would be. Then Duncan [Macmillan] and I met by chance about something else altogether and ended up talking about Nineteen Eighty-Four. At that point we’d just signed the rights down. So we knew we were allowed to do it. It meant that right at the top of the game we had free rein to talk about it… I think there’s something genuinely honest and important about digging into these texts quite hard. As an audience member I find it very…  I suppose there’s a 15-year-old boy in me who gets really bored in period-dressed productions of classic plays. I suppose at some point I had the moment when I went “Just because everyone says it’s a classic and it’s in old costumes that doesn’t mean anything, if it’s boring, it’s still boring”. One of the things we’ve talked quite a lot about on this is being able to allow young people access. Theatre is in a lot of competition now with a lot of really great stuff. What we spend our time watching is Mad Men and The Wire and the West Wing and video games and they’re great now. And you’ve got a lot of competition – and there’s a real desire to want to be current in that conversation – and to want to be able to say to particularly young people who come that we can deliver them a live experience that’s as fizzy and exciting and immediate as they might find their Grand Theft Auto 5 session. I remember saying to the estate at the start if you wanted to have the experience of what honey was like, one way of doing it would be to draw a picture of a jar of honey which would be fine and not inaccurate. But if you did a production of Nineteen Eighty-Four that was focussed mainly on blue overalls, peeling walls and dry ice that is the equivalent of drawing a jar of honey and what you really want to do is open the jar and go “Taste this, this is brilliant!” I suppose the aspiration for us has always been to crack the shell of it and mainline what’s inside the novel and what its questions are and what its anxieties are and deliver that not cerebrally but to try and deliver that as an experience – so that [in the same way] when you finish the novel and you go “That was completely extraordinary I feel wiped out” in whatever way, that we want at the end of an hour and 40 minutes for the audience to have that same sense of a visceral face-punch.

Duncan Macmillan: It’s a novel that we all think we know, and some of us have read very recently and thoroughly. The number of times we went through this novel, we must have read it cover to cover I have no idea… we were still finding things that were huge and essential and then trying to find people having written about it, and couldn’t find anything written on it. For instance, Winston doesn’t finish reading Goldstein’s book which I don’t think I even picked up the first few times reading it through, and certainly we can’t find any other adaptation that has dealt with it.

Robert Icke: The point of Goldstein’s book is that it’s there for ages and then he gets to a paragraph which reads ‘And now we reach the central secret, the thing that’s most important, the reason double-think exists, the reason the thought-police exists’, and he stops reading it, and you think: What better gesture about political apathy?

Duncan Macmillan: He notices Julia lying next to him, and goes to sleep, puts the book down. And we’re told that only once you’ve finished reading the book are you inducted into the brotherhood –

Robert Icke: He never makes it in, because he never finishes the book. Which is a fascinating structure I think…

Duncan Macmillan: That’s fascinating for how much evidence we need to support our own bias. We only need to know that a book exists which can support our own belief system. We don’t need to read it, we just need to know it’s there. … Let’s go back [to the subject of], unread books – I think I’d said the same thing when we first started, which was I think I read it when I was about 15, which is the standard answer of most people I’ve been talking to. Everyone has got Room 101 in their head, they’ve got Big Brother, Winston Smith. “I must have read it”. So the follow-up question is always “Well, did you read the appendix?” “I don’t think I did.” So that came in very early in our conversation – about how you dramatise the appendix. Certainly when I’d read it when I was about 15, I didn’t remember reading the appendix.

Robert Icke: That we took to the estate as well. I remember saying quite forcefully to the estate at the start – I did jar of honey and I remember saying I think the appendix is the most important bit. I think it’s structurally the thing that defines the whole. I remember Bill Hamilton – who is the executor and the estate – being quite surprised at how firm I was about saying “I don’t know how you can adapt this novel if you don’t touch the appendix. I don’t know what it means. And the footnote”..[DM: on page 3]. “Newspeak was the official language of Oceania – for further information see appendix.”

Duncan Macmillan: So you know it’s there, all the way through… The Party is thrown into the past tense – and the last word of the book, if you consider the appendix the final chapter, which is how Orwell described it, it’s 2050, the last word you’re left with. So it’s a book written in 1948, published in 1949, about an imagined 1984 read from the experience of it being a primary text in the hands of somebody in 2050 – your relationship with the book changes as you go through it. So when you’re reading Goldstein’s book, your eyes are moving across the same words that Winston’s are – so you swap places with Winston. And you never get to finish that book either… The appendix is written in sort of the same academic way as Goldstein’s book and no one ever reads it, which we thought was really extraordinary. ..So it was trying to represent something that was very…

Robert Icke: It’s a book that’s about unreliability… he puts something at the end that a lot of people hilariously and ironically haven’t bothered to finish, and one of the key moments of the novel itself is Winston not bothering to finish the book that is going to tell him the secret of the world. And one of the things the novel really thinks about is the status of the text, and what text means – and whether text can have any authority when it has been messed with. How you can trust words to deliver any information. ..

Dominic Cavendish: What’s revolutionary about this production is that you immediately pull the rug away so we have a double-take of thinking we’re in the familiar, almost cosy world of Nineteen Eighty-Fours of old, and then, panning out and showing this Winston Smith to be somehow a quasi-ghost in his own narrative, somebody who is simultaneously reading the book, commentating on it, and imagined almost perhaps by those around him who are reading it.. You talk about the appendix, but that’s still a long way intellectually to repositioning the entire story as something that is being conceived in the theatrical here and now. [How did that come about?]

Robert Icke: One of the provocations we set ourselves early doors – was how do you stage double-think – the novel is very successful at putting forward two contradictory ideas and never resolving which one is the right one, which a lot of people find very frustrating about the novel and we’ve always found very exciting about the novel. And it took us a long time – it went through a lot of different iterations, and a lot of fine-tuning and a lot of rewrites in rehearsals, those framing sections. The aspiration was always to be like the appendix and the footnote – because the footnote goes at the start and the appendix goes at the end, so it is a framed novel. The novel itself exists in a frame which reads it contextually backwards and presumably says: what does this novel mean? And there’s lots of unusual things about the appendix, one of which is that Winston’s in it even after O’Brien has said that Winston is going to be removed from history, he’s going to have all his records wiped. There’s one mention of him in the appendix and it says ‘the records department, in which Winston Smith works’– and you think: why do you know that? In 2050 why have you got any idea who Winston Smith is given that Winston Smith presumably doesn’t achieve his own political 9/11 against the party, he doesn’t do anything presumably, he’s just shot after the final scene of the novel? As Duncan said, when you read Goldstein’s book, your eyes go with Winston’s eyes but all the rest of the way through, from the moment you read “It was a bright cold day in April”, you’re reading the book with somebody else, because that person has footnoted it and written you an appendix, so there’s another reader in your experience of the novel at all times. And the novel also has odd access – it’s a third-person novel but it has odd access to Winston’s subjective thoughts… The novel actively thinks about what it means if people can see inside your head and somehow this novel can see inside its protagonist’s head even though it maintains a third-person distance.

Duncan Macmillan: So if this is a primary text, what is it as a primary text? I was in Berlin for a point, and I went to the Stasi museum and looking at these records of people who had essentially been unpersoned and there’s their life stories and they’re essentially being pieced together now – they were shredded and I think it’s going to take 250 years at the rate they’re going to piece together all the records they’ve got. People are waiting to find out what happened to their loved ones…

Robert Icke: The framing device comes out effectively of a very close reading of the novel. Once we’d understood what the appendix did, we realised it had that trackback in it – we got quite obsessed with the fact that the adaptation had to manage that.

Duncan Macmillan: There’s a huge amount of subjectivity in the book, and a huge amount of complication and contradiction. There’s a point – spoiler alert – when they are captured, when it says ‘and that was the last time he saw Julia’. Then right before the end of the book, before the appendix, Winston remembers seeing Julia the day before, so either that’s a false memory or it’s true and the book has been lying to us. We realise that Goldstein possibly even probably doesn’t exist as a literal person, Big Brother probably doesn’t exist as a literally true person, in which case if you have actors playing them then you’re saying: this is a literal universe. That’s not accurate to what the book is trying to say. It’s trying to provide a frame where the characters aren’t necessarily literally there.

Robert Icke: You have to be able to not trust… You have to be able set up the stage as a place which might be imaginary. We were very careful about constructing.. we had a post-show discussion last night, there was an interesting audience fight about this about whether Winston in scene one is a guy in a book-group imagining his way into George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four or whether he’s Winston Smith imagining an imaginary future, or whether a lot of people who’ve read the book in the room who then imagine Winston Smith who they see in the room. The status of who’s dreaming who and where that ends up seemed to us to be so important to try and catch the subjectivity of what Orwell achieves in the novel. So you can never quite be sure whether this is real, whether this is dreamed, or whether this is remembered.

Dominic Cavendish: It seems to me it’s acting as an argument – obviously it’s working at a visceral level, in the way that one wants a production of Nineteen Eighty-Four to work – in defence of a book.. Just from what you’ve been saying, some would say: doesn’t that show that Nineteen Eighty-Four is on one level a very popular and well-loved book but also not held as great literature because it’s an unstable book? And you could argue that his feverish completion of the novel in his dying days allows holes to creep in that he might have been able to tidy. So your argument is ‘no, no these things stand up because if you look closely enough that dreamscape is absolutely foreshadowed in even quite minor details’… Is that roughly what you’re saying? It’s a defence.

Robert Icke: Yes, it’s something I always feel about Shakespeare as well that often what are perceived to be the weaknesses of the play, the bits that critics will say – the reason you shouldn’t do that play is that bit, that bit’s terrible… I really felt that about the novel. There’s a lot of fevered dreams in it, a lot of hallucination in it and actually that’s the bit that we both thought “That’s it!”, that’s the bit you want to stage. That’s the exciting stuff.

Duncan Macmillan: Wasn’t there a letter from Orwell to his US publisher – saying he thought he’d messed it up?

Robert Icke: Bolloxed it up.

Duncan Macmillan: Yes.. and I can’t – we had a long conversation about what it was Orwell thought he had bolloxed up in the book. Because it’s so delicious those contradictions, and fevered dreams. The fact that he imagines the golden country sequence with Julia before he has actually met Julia, the fact that we are introduced to her absolutely as thought-police and then he absolutely switches to saying she’s not thought-police and we never really get a  pay-off to whether she is or she isn’t. The fact that O’Brien is introduced to us as absolutely an ally then absolutely not an ally but then an early provocation we came up with – in the appendix, we know that if the Party is going to fall it will be because there are people like O’Brien high up in the Party who are members of the Brotherhood. The Party does fall, does that mean that O’Brien might be Brotherhood after all? And Winston is just a terrible radical, he’s not radicalised properly. He’s a terrible terrorist

Robert Icke: A useless terrorist, who doesn’t bother reading the Koran properly before he goes ‘I’m ready, I’m ready, I’ll arm up’. You think – why though? What do you want?

Dominic Cavendish: Just re-reading the first few pages again, the first sight of Julia is with O’Brien … so there are all these feelings that it’s a prophecy of a self-destructive mission foretold. There are no surprises because the surprises in a sense were there if you’d spotted them.

Robert Icke: Yes, O’Brien keeps saying to him: you know this already, you’ve always known about this, you know the answer to that question already. And that sets up a lot – one of the things we talked about a lot at the beginning [was] the film – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the memory film, and could you posit that the whole novel happens, under duress, in Room 101, and so what you’re seeing strange flash-backs to things that have already happened, which explains the fevered quality and those ambiguities.

Duncan Macmillan: It’s making sure that someone could retrospectively view the entire play as having taken place in Room 101. In terms of the staging and design, the way that we use O’Brien’s voice-over early on… and the sounds that we hear in Room 101 we also hear early on, and we have black-outs in a way that we have black-outs later on, under duress. … The way we achieved real privacy for Julia and Winston was by having them projected on the big-screen and filmed but they are actually in a separate room. There’s a massive contradiction hopefully which is very helpful all the way through.

Robert Icke: It’s also important to us that the book they discuss could be Winston’s diary, could be Orwell’s novel, could potentially be Goldstein’s book and it’s clear in the novel and again Orwell establishes it weirdly early that Goldstein has written a book and it’s called (italics) The Book and it’s scary and it’s a bible of heresies. There’s an early anxiety in the novel about the mystery book, and what the meaning of the mystery book is and if you could only get a copy of it what would it mean. .. There were a couple of people who saw it in previews, some of whom we put quite a lot of trust on – we sort of said “Tell us what it’s like”.. and someone said to us at one point, it’s very clear that your Charrington actor in the first scene and the final scene is the person who has written the appendix, which is not something that had ever occurred to us… It hopefully sits in both places at once, in that it could be the future that Winston imagines when he starts to write the diary, it could be the unborn future… and which he says he’s writing for. It could be us thinking about Orwell, or it could be the people who write the appendix… looking back at either whatever the text is that is the primary text of Orwell’s novel or Winston’s diary if it has been reclaimed or refound somehow.

Duncan Macmillan: Or it could be, as the book could be, and it says quite explicitly in the book, everything happens at the moment he puts pen to paper. In that thought – thought and deed are one. So all he needs to do is have the thought to put pen to paper and everything, the entire novel exists in that moment… We could have done GATZ [the entire reading of The Great Gatsby by New York’s Elevator Repair Service] and have somebody read the entirety of the novel which I think was an early idea. It would have been long…

Dominic Cavendish: Were you inspired by GATZ?

Robert Icke: I loved GATZ. I had a really brilliant time at GATZ. I thought GATZ was very successful at a lot of things, there’s something about the rough theatre of GATZ that which has made its way through.  The influences have been quite wildly different. We talked a lot about The Shining [the Kurbrick film] and the achievement of the Shining in combining two discreet worlds. The way he manages to take one central figure between these two worlds in a way that feels generically terrifying without ever resorting to shock tricks. We really didn’t want to make this the Chinese marching Nineteen Eighty-Four but rather to make it a psychological pressure that started when the curtain went up and when we spat it back out at the end and the houselights came up again, you felt like you’d been under this tight pressure for the whole thing – that’s the reason it doesn’t have an interval.

Duncan Macmillan: I think the over-riding thing was how do we find a theatrical form for the prose form of what he’s doing… how do we achieve double-think, how do we deliver the intellectual argument, and also, always talking about the audience, can we take along a 15-year-old who has never read the book, and can we also satisfy the scholar who has also read this book 100 times? And can it stand up to re-reading, once you’ve seen it, go back to the book, is it all still there…? It’s funny, because Headlong I think sometimes has a reputation for being theatrical and innovative in many ways, we were very prepared to do that, but we were also very prepared to do the social realist version if that’s what [was required]. But I think we’ve ended up being incredibly faithful to the book. And we’ve left out a lot of very weird things that I think we would have looked very wilful for including. There’s the face of a gorilla – it could have looked very German, this production – animal heads…

Robert Icke: There’s also a really good provocation from Orwell himself early in the novel where he says: how do you talk to the future? Because if the future looks just like now, they’ll think that’s just us, what’s the point and if the future’s different you’re going to be trying to translate something in a way that means there’ll be a disjunct… I suppose feel the same thing about any canonical theatre, which is: your responsibility is to the people who are in the room that day, and the person who wrote it originally – and you’re trying to connect the audience and the world of now with whatever the text is, and if the text is worth looking at there’ll be a way of bridging that gap. And there’ll be a way of bridging that gap [that’s] being honest and truthful to both parties. And I think it’s profoundly dishonest to do the blue overalls version because I think what it doesn’t deliver is so much of the complexity which is what we found so exciting and all the moments where we rang eachother or emailed or pasted another bit of the novel into an email and put exclamation marks into the subject line, none of those bits were about the smell of cabbage, all of those bits were about another contradiction or another thing that feels like a clue … we had a very exciting day we did one of the workshops in a very, very strange room in King’s College London which looks like David Lynch has been on Grand Designs or something – and does look a lot like the room [we’ve created]… and Chloe Lamford the designer came to meet us at one of the workshops. She and I were having a design meeting, she saw that room, we were saying “It might be a bit like this” but we went afterwards just to see St Clement Danes church which is just round the corner. I remember her saying on the way, it feels like everything in the novel is a clue, there’s nothing in there that he hasn’t put there on purpose, and there’s nothing in there that isn’t loaded in a way that he knows is loaded.. and he’s clearly somebody with a tremendous sense of irony and a tremendous sense of humour….



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