ALRA Present George Orwell's '1984'

by our northern correspondent

George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in the summer of 1949. Preparation of the final manuscript had ruined his health and Orwell died only six months later. Unlike his earlier Animal Farm, which he had adapted for the radio himself, Orwell did not live to see or hear the later adaptations of his work, though the first, broadcast on NBC in the United States, with David Niven playing Winston Smith, went out before he died. NBC’s introduction emphasised that it was the importance of the book that made them produce their play so quickly.

In the sixty-five years since Nineteen Eighty-Four appeared it has not lost its importance, and ALRA’s dramatic adaptation (using the alternate title ‘1984’), which is touring the north-west in September, is another example of how Orwell’s work can be taken, presented in a spartan space, and still drive home its power.

ALRA’s script is based on Matthew Dunster’s adaptation for Manchester Exchange, but under director Liz Postlethwaite, the cast of ALRA post-graduates, before intense lights, grinding industrial music, and telescreen sound effects, have compressed Orwell’s original words on the page into vivid dramatic representations. Beginning with a stylized gaze into the distance, where Big Brother can almost be seen above the heads of the audience, as the ensemble line up, we start to realise that an image or a tableau can usefully summarise Orwell’s descriptions. Unlike some versions this is a play that cuts out language. At the same time this is a play that concentrates on the individuals and their interplay. The readings one sometimes hears from ‘The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism’ were cut short here, as were Winston and O’Brien’s philosophical discussions.

It takes a close reading of the novel to realise that Winston and Julia have known each other by sight for a long time before she finally passes him a note. Here we have Winston (played first by Ciaran Wilson) surrounded by the three women in his life and in his mind: Julia (Houmi Miura), O’Brien (played here by a rarely speaking Maria Major), and his mother (Emily Heyworth). O’Brien (readers before me have pointed out that O’Brien’s name begins with a zero and ends with the French nothing ‘rien’) is the figure who will tempt Winston and then empty him of everything but love of Big Brother; a figure who reappears, if only to be seen out of the corner of Winston’s eye, until finally she has him under her gaze totally in the Ministry of Love.

Figures such as Winston’s colleague Parsons (Duncan Crompton) and Syme (Rachel Stockdale) discover that mere work for the party is no defence against the thoughtcrime that will lead them, too, to the cells where there is no darkness. (This version has merged Ampleforth and Syme, which is a pity, as Syme originally may have been both intelligent enough and duplicitous enough to have been promoted somewhere else in Oceania: the novel is unclear). When you remember that Winston, Julia, Parsons and the rest are all outer party members, not proles, you may wonder how Parsons was allowed to marry the struggling Mrs Parsons (Dawn Bramhall) but when you see the vivacity of the Parsons children (Rachel Alcock and Peter James) and the viciousness they have already learned, you see a personification of Orwell’s fears for the future. About half the roles in this production are doubled-up, and later it takes a moment to recognise that a starving figure begging, trying to turn informer, in the Ministry cells is also played by Ms Alcock.

Winston Smith is not just a failed intellectual, he believes in physical love. Katherine (Laura Betts), the wife from whom Winston is long separated, has taken to heart the injunction that reproduction is ‘our duty to the party’: her role is one of near-catatonic submission to insemination, sex without feeling. Later, Mr Charrington (Matthew Fordy) will seem to offer the chance of a place to love, a room where Winston and Julia can meet. It is there that Winston and Julia discover that Charrington has instead given them the chance to condemn themselves.

Recordings exist, though I have not found one, of a 1955 Australian broadcast of Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which Winston was played by two actors, a split personality. As the lights rise on the second part of ALRA’s production Winston is played by Marcus Christopherson. In the cells of the Ministry of Love Winston sees figures passing through – despite his first writings they are not being shot in the back of the neck – they are being manhandled, they are being starved, they are subject to petty orders, they are being beaten senseless, men and women, and they are being taken to Room 101. Bumstead (Christopher Taberner) has become a nervous wreck, an anonymous woman (Rachel Alcock) foreshadows Winston’s own betrayal, trying to denounce another prisoner; none of them escape from the regimented guards (Peter James, Josh Hart, Elliot Brown, Seth Daniels). And finally, neither does Winston. Winston’s rack scene, his face dripping agonised sweat, is perhaps even stronger than the final rat encounter (we heard rats earlier, but not here; perhaps we should). In the novel O’Brien knew that Winston under torture was imagining his spine snapping, dripping grey fluid; Winston and the guards act an equally powerful image of agony. Against that, Winston would do anything: as he finally does, even love Big Brother, betray Julia.

The Party provides no escape, not even the escape of death. Saved, Winston and Julia return to everyday life. Julia limps into the Chestnut Tree Cafe. They have each betrayed the other, not even love has survived.

The Orwell Society was privileged to see this production at The Mill At The Pier, in Wigan, in which enormous building the ALRA also has its northern base. After the production the audience were invited to stay for a question and answer session. Richard Blair, George Orwell’s son, described the conditions on Jura in which his father wrote the novel, while Quentin Kopp described his father Georges’s torture in Spain, descriptions of which may have provided Orwell with source material. And later answers explained how Orwell could be a radical without being a communist. Later conversations with the audience threw up interesting connections with Eton, Orwell’s alma mater, among other subjects.

This season finishes on Thursday 17th September with a production at Oldham Library.

The previous production from this ALRA course was Brecht’s Mother Courage. Could the next be The Road To Wigan Pier?

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