The cast of 1984 have been rethinking traditional interpretations of their characters. David Eagleson with permission for Varsity

George Orwell’s 1984 has become so much more than just a dystopian novel. It is mass surveillance, 21st century technology, Stalin’s Russia, modern North Korea, right-wing propaganda, and one of the most banned books across the world. Something is Orwellian if it is dystopian, a term used to reference so many things that we see currently — digital surveillance, technological control, war. But the general view seems to perceive Orwell’s 1984 as a cautionary tale about a nightmarish future. In actuality, parts of that nightmare were never so far away. This new production of 1984 brings Orwell’s Oceania unavoidably close.

So why choose to stage the text? Director Christian Longstaff comments that the choice was partly because of dystopian fiction becoming increasingly popular in the wake of Covid-19. The chosen adaptation (by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan) provides Orwell’s novel with “modern life” in terms of how it looks and reads as a play; the set and sound design reflect the contemporary, and characters left two dimensional by Orwell become indisputably human. The adaptation’s structure is experimental — it is a stream of the protagonist’s own consciousness rather than a series of scenes. The novel follows this protagonist, Winston, as he navigates selfhood in the face of totalitarian power and finds rebellion through his relationship with Julia. This production transforms the novel’s narrative of largely internal rebellion of thought into more animated theatrical form.

“The adaptation calls for a fundamentally different reaction to Orwell’s constructed dystopian reality”

The adaptation calls for a fundamentally different reaction to Orwell’s constructed dystopian reality. Beginning with the meta-theatrical setting of a literary study group reading Winston’s diary, the play treats the narrative as if it is a piece of literature that has survived a dystopian past rather than something describing a dystopian future. Mirroring contemporary literary discussion about the novel, the play uses Orwell’s world to represent a history of authoritarianism as if it takes place in the present day. In other words, 1984 becomes less of a future, and more of the now. As Longstaff says: “when people talk of 1984 as a cautionary tale, they weaken things that have already happened and are currently happening in terms of government control.”

In rehearsal for 1984.Ewan Woods with permission for Varsity

Recognising the chilling fact that we currently live in the most heavily surveilled country in the world, with one CCTV camera for every twenty people, this production emphasises that viewing dystopian texts such as 1984 as a warning for the future is self-defeating. If we view authoritarianism as something always one step away from the present, we allow our governments to continually push the limits of what constitutes oppression. “Britishness” therefore is a key part of this 1984, although not confined to one particular time or date. As producer Ewan Woods comments, “1984 is a fundamentally English book. Adapting it as we are allows for it to grow”. Growth here entails an immersive transformation into a more recognisable dystopia, taken away from the brutalism of the 1950s and transposed onto modern day Britain. Longstaff comments, “1984 is inherently darker when people recognise it. If it’s something you recognise as English, it stays with you when you leave the theatre.”

Both sound, with an original soundtrack composed by Stan Hunt (described by Woods as “70s grungy”), ambitious tech choices such as the 55-inch “tele-screens” on stage, and lighting, will help to give 1984 a contemporary life. The show’s lighting scheme is ambitious, with lighting designer Sophie Richardson using up to 18 lighting channels to convey shifts in location and scene throughout Winston’s stream of consciousness — an impressive amount for the relatively intimate performance space.

“In developing their characters, they have sought to look beyond typical adaptations of the novel”

Actors Rob Monteiro and Irisa Kwok also shared how, in developing their characters, they too have sought to look beyond typical adaptations of the novel. Kwok highlighted the importance of questioning the rather simple way in which readers and audiences typically approach Julia’s character through Winston’s male gaze. Challenging interpretations of Julia as apolitical and fundamentally passive, they hope instead to explore her agency and self-fulfilment in a life consisting of emotional or desire-based acts of rebellion beyond the reach of Winston. Indeed, Longstaff describes how Julia in fact becomes a “a means through which [Winston] can actualise internal feelings of a lack of self-fulfilment”, transforming our understanding of the power dynamic of this relationship and their contrasting outlooks on rebellion.


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Monteiro similarly explains how embodying Winston has involved a process of dismantling traditional perceptions of him as a purely political character. A desire to rebel might be central to his own identity, but he is also driven by innately human desires — whether for chocolate, or for sex. “A product of his society”, he explains, his Winston is just another human experiencing a doomed existence, remarkably insecure and unhappy in the process of rebelling and trying to impose a new political order.

Placing human flaws and subjective moral perspectives at centre stage, this production seeks to look beyond distant dystopian political metaphors, and engage with the realities of modern mass surveillance and media censorship in a deeply human way. “I hope that people will leave and think that it is a text that reflects society as it is and where we are now”, Longstaff says. Perhaps this is really where we are now, for the eerie Britishness of this production seems sure to bring 1984 scarily close to the home we recognise.

1984 plays at the Corpus Playroom from Tuesday 9th to Saturday 13th May, 7pm.