Mrs Orwell, by Tony Cox:
Old Red Lion, London,
directed by Jimmy Walters
‘ … a totally unforgettable experience …’
The reviews (Guardian, The Stage etc) of Mrs Orwell have generally been very kind. Certainly the actors are all excellent and it makes for a very entertaining theatrical experience. Peter Hamilton Dyer, who plays Orwell, has a sort of Orwellian profile and Cressida Bonas, as Sonia, looks appropriately glamorous and debonnaire.
Dan Wooller Rex Shutterstock
But there are many problematic elements in the play and production. Orwell begins coughing a lot and he does sound very ill (though the make-up department has made no effort to make him look pale and haggard). But after a while he stops coughing, starts shouting, cracks jokes and even gets up and walks about. Though Orwell stoops a bit he generally seems perfectly OK. And that feels all wrong. Then suddenly towards the end he begins coughing again; the room and bed is empty and he’s gone and died. Strange. (The actual script interestingly includes an Anglican wedding service conducted by the hospital chaplain and with Orwell dressed in a red velvet smoking jacket looking ‘unexpectedly grand and military’ but this wasn’t included in the production we saw).
The playwright clearly had a problem: depicting a man close to death, very ill, coughing a lot and lying in a hospital bed does not offer a great many theatrical opportunities. So he uses the dialogue to provide a sort of worthy, educational, Eamonn Andrews This is Your Life-ish overview of Orwell’s life (his time in Burma with the prostitutes, his guilt over his empire service leading to his need for atonement with the down and outs, fighting in Spain, getting shot, his daily routines with his son Richard on Jura etc) rather than portraying him ‘realistically’ as a dying man.
The play is called Mrs Orwell yet, in fact, the playwright misses the opportunity to focus more on her – for instance, her relationship with Cyril Connolly, her feelings about her former lover Maurice Merleau-Ponty, her views on Orwell’s work and contemporary writings in general. Too often in the histories the women in the lives of ‘Great Men’ (Mrs Dickens, Mrs Joyce, Mrs Mahler etc) are marginalised – here was a chance to put the spotlight on Sonia. But still the real emphasis of the play is on Orwell, the man. What a shame!
For a man so political as Orwell there is very little politics in the play. When ‘politics’ is discussed it often feels ‘wrong’. For instance, Orwell’s attack on ‘feminists and pacifists’ seems to hark back to the second section of The Road to Wigan Pier – views he’d surely outgrown by 1949. And while Orwell was very ill he kept on reading. The play shows him dipping into just Somerset Maughan’s The Razor’s Edge. In fact, he had read that earlier at Cranham sanatorium in the Cotswolds. And by the time he arrived at University College Hospital, in London, he needed spectacles to read. Moreover, at UCH he read a vast amount: Dante’s Divine Comedy, trying to teach himself Italian by reading it in the original, all of Poe’s stories, a humorous novel by Cyril Alington, his old Etonian headmaster, Connolly’s Enemies of Promise, Compton Mackenzie’s Sinister Street, two novels by Henry Green, Malcolm Muggeridge’s new novel Affairs of the Heart, E. H. Carr’s The Romantic Exiles – and so on. In total, he devoured 144 books during his final year – 27 of them for the second time. The play in no way captures Orwell’s hunger for reading that lasted right up to his dying days.
James Gourley Rex Shutterstock
The set seems odd too: more like an ordinary bedsit in Pimlico than an expensive private ward in a hospital (no medical equipment close at hand). And I did not get a real sense of the late 1940s in the production. The script indicates various production elements (such as sound mix of BBC’s Third Programme, milk bottles on doorstep/MP on hustings/Workers’ Playtime on the radio) which would have helped convey this – but for some reason they were not incorporated into the production. Orwell actually wrote a detailed description of the contents of his room No. 65 at the hospital (including a wireless) – and the set designer could have exploited it perhaps more effectively.
Edmund Digby Jones conveys painter Lucian Freud’s sinister creepiness well. But his comments on Simone de Beauvoir (suggesting that he had slept with her, that she was boring in bed simply competing with her partner, Jean-Paul Sartre, over the number of lovers they could have) were silly. Orwell’s stressing the importance of ‘learning how to make dumplings’ when proposing to Sonia is recorded in Hilary Spurling’s biography of her. But Sonia’s comment that she was about to meet de Beauvoir and Sartre at the Ritz would appear to have little basis in reality. Sonia was clearly an excellent editor at Horizon who could thrive quite happily amongst the leading writers and intellectuals of her day – Koestler, Auden, J. R. Ackerley, Marguerite Duras, Mary McCarthy, Edna O’Brien, Ian Fleming. The play stresses her animal sexuality – her striking intelligence (which also clearly appealed to Orwell) was not conveyed.
There are a number of other factual errors: for instance, the American publishers are called Harcourt Price (p. 12 in the script published by Oberon Books and available at the theatre) when it should have been Harcourt Brace.
All that said, the play made for a totally unforgettable experience. Indeed, it’s not very often that I travel to London on a Sunday to watch a play with fellow Orwell Society members in a tiny theatre at the back of a pub where the locals are noisily watching the Spurs/Chelsea derby on the box.
Richard Lance Keeble