by Carol Biederstadt
“What makes this play so utterly convincing, however, are the first-rate performances of the entire cast”
1984 runs in Barcelona until June 11th 2017
It was 80 years ago that George Orwell arrived in Barcelona to take up arms against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War, serving in the militia of the dissident Marxist Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM), but Director Sue Flack admits that the timing hadn’t occurred to her when she decided to produce an Orwell play for the current season of Barcelona’s Escapade Theatre. Instead, Flack says the current political climate drove her to select 1984: “It had always been a favourite of mine, but I thought it too bleak for a popular audience”. She is quick to add, however, that “as soon as BREXIT happened and Trump won and all the fake news thing kicked off, I knew it was time to do the piece – popular or not”.
Sue Flack is certainly not the only one to feel the present-day pull of 1984, for staged productions, cinematic screenings, and marathon readings of Orwell’s dystopian novel have recently been popping up in cities around the globe. Still, the Escapade Theatre’s production of this once futuristic but now nearly 70-year-old story stands apart in the way it manages to ooze currency and relevance while at the same time remaining faithful to the text. Some of this is no doubt simply coincidence; Matthew Dunster’s 2012 stage adaptation, for instance, at times lends the novel, already preternaturally relevant in 2017, an additional layer of almost prophetic pertinence. In response to propaganda harping on the dangers of traitor Emmanuel Goldstein and his efforts to undermine Oceania, for example, a booming voice emanating from the telescreen promises the frenzied crowd that “One man will never allow this to happen”. Ring any bells? Most of what contributes to the play’s timely feel, however, is clearly intentional; without straying from Dunster’s adaptation, minor tweaks tying in contemporary politics are delicately woven into the dialogue, backdrop, and props from start to finish. Along with phrases such as “Hate! Hate! Hate!” and “Swine! Swine! Swine!”, for example, party members at a Two Minutes Hate shout “Build a wall!”, “Strong and stable!”, and “Crush the Saboteurs!” Threaded into the collective taunts with such subtlety, however, I found myself questioning my own ears more than once. Similarly, seeming to visually exemplify both Doublespeak and the notion that “who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past”, agitprop befitting the future as envisioned by Orwell in 1949 is made to seamlessly yet conspicuously parallel the current political context. One can almost imagine the logo “Keep INGSOC Great” adorning a red cap, for example, while bogus Daily Mail newspapers emblazoned with the phrase “Gotcha!” and a “BB News” logo clearly designed to mimic the Breitbart trademark contribute to a timeframe that is difficult to pinpoint; just as Winston Smith can’t be sure that it is indeed 1984 when he begins keeping his forbidden diary, topical references disorient the viewer with something akin to a temporal paradox. Intentional, certainly, but handled so skillfully that it works, masking the manipulation so that it always seems to originate with the Party and not with the production itself.
Complementing measures taken to make the play feel current are the extreme lengths to which the production goes to ensure authenticity. Apparently unimpeded by local statutes and regulations, Winston smokes real cigarettes (and I would not be surprised to find the Victory Gin he drinks 90 proof), and the scenes involving intimacy between Winston and Julia are explicit enough to get a class of high school students attending the performance giggling and chattering. The play’s commitment to realism truly jumps into overdrive only after Julia and Winston are apprehended, however: setting fire to the picture of Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford that had long troubled Winston, O’Brien douses it in a bucket of water only fractions of a second, it seems, before it scorches his fingers; the stage actually needs to be mopped following a scene in which Winston (in another nod to current times) is waterboarded; and at least some of the fists pummeling Winston in the torture scenes, I am convinced, actually make contact with Daniel Ewing, the actor in the lead role. Stage makeup is also gruesomely realistic – even for those of us sitting in the front row – and during his interrogation in the Ministry of Love, Winston appears bruised, bloodied, and soiled. In one of the final scenes, Winston strips down completely after O’Brien commands him to remove his underwear, and the gravity of the scene is only slightly diminished by the embarrassed outburst it elicits from the high school students sitting directly across from me whose reaction I cannot help but notice due to the layout of the theatre.
What makes this play so utterly convincing, however, are the first-rate performances of the entire cast, including Mary McGurk as Julia, Norbert Becker as Charrington, Mark Aspinall as Goldstein, Ben Torbush as Parsons, and Alfie Rowland as Syme. Especially deserving of kudos, however, are Daniel Ewing as Winston Smith and Morgan Symes as Smith’s inscrutable nemesis O’Brien. Together the Ewing-Symes pair exude a perfect onstage symbiosis, each seeming to feed off the energy of the other in the lead-up to the disturbing conclusion of the play. Ewing had clearly dug deeply not only into the character of Winston Smith but into his own soul to deliver the receiving end of the gut-wrenching “re-education” scenes with such complete understanding and authenticity; indeed, not since John Hurt’s performance have I been so convinced by an actor in this role. Morgan Symes is equally adept in the schizophrenic role of O’Brien, Winston’s tormentor and savior. It is an arduous performance to watch, however, and one can only imagine how emotionally taxing performing these roles must be for each of the actors.
Without doubt, Orwell’s chilling tale, masterfully presented under the direction of Sue Flack, in many ways coincides with the current political context in much of the world. As a flier for the production says,
It is 1984. Winston Smith lives in a world of constant surveillance, of perpetual war where only the name of the enemy changes, a world in which cheap entertainment, alcohol and the lottery ticket keeps the masses ignorant but content – a world of doublethink, thoughtcrime, and newspeak. Sound familiar?
It does indeed. Yet one must take care not to draw too many parallels between Orwell’s predictions and the current political reality. As Thomas Pynchon pointed out in the Foreword to the Berkley edition of the novel in 2003, for example, “Orwell did not foresee . . . the religious wars with which we have become all too familiar, involving various sorts of fundamentalism”. Pynchon contends, however, that Orwell did realize, as early as in 1948, “that despite the Axis defeat, the will to fascism had not gone away, that far from having seen its day it had perhaps not even come into its own . . . ” And herein lies the detail that becomes hard to square with the modern, populist, “deplorable” reality, for what Winston Smith had predicted was: “If there is hope it lies with the proles”. Who, then, are the modern-day proles that can save us, and how, exactly, does Winston Smith define “hope”? Is it simply the destruction of evil, or is it the genesis of true decency? One thing seems clear to me: the two are not synonymous.
There are still a few days left to see this thought-provoking play, which will run at the Versus Teatre until June 11th. If you plan to be in Barcelona, don’t miss it. It is doubleplusgood.
Photographs by Carol Bieberstadt