I had put off seeing EmpathEyes Theatre’s adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, which finishes tomorrow at the Pleasance Zoo, because I have not read the book since I was a teenager and I cannot help feeling a little snobbish towards it. 1984 is one of those books – like The Great Gatsby or The Crucible – which are widely taught in schools, despite having little relevancy to the lives of modern children, only because the teachers had studied these books themselves when they were at school. When Orwell wrote 1984 (in 1948), it was conceivable that Stalinism could overthrow the British state. The novel’s nightmarish quality derives from a genuinely real terror, which may seem somewhat remote today. Orwell was also on a one-man mission to destroy Stalinism, as if personally determined to compensate for the rest of the dopey British Left’s inability to see through it.
Today, however, there are only a few mad specks of Stalinism left. Adaptations of 1984 have to reach beyond its faded historical references to its wider, if often only theoretical, interrogation of our human condition. EmpathEyes are so faithful to the original novel that they cannot wholly update 1984, but they have the energy and ambition to make it seem surprisingly fresh. In their hands, the book becomes, quite unexpectedly, a theatrical extravaganza.
On stage, 1984 is rather like Macbeth or Hamlet, in that one is reminded of the actual origins of many expressions and images which have since entered our lexicon and become naturalised. EmpathEyes at times furnish scenes of intoxicating intensity, most notably the final power struggle between Winston Smith (Theo Gordon) and his tormenter O’Brien (Dan Addis). Yet they are also fond of the details. In some superb physical theatre, the cast whip up a ferocious “Two Minute Hate.” When they slither towards an imprisoned Smith, their faces obscured by gas masks, it is almost as frightening as if this production had used real rats.
There are mild misjudgements. This production has to obviously incorporate filmmaking, since it incorporates everything else, but the film clips are more conspicuously studenty and amateurish than the rest of the play. There is a danger that the first-rate accompanying music is forgotten in the general applause. I also did not like the pants. At times everybody is stripped down to uniform black underpants, signifying the ruthless conformity of Big Brother’s utopia, but it is like being surrounded by mannequins in the naughty section of BHS. I began to wonder whether the pants were formal props, kept in the same box and handed out indiscriminately at the start of every performance.
Gordon offers a pleasant, likeable Smith, who is more convincing as a character when he is merely unimpressed by Big Brother than when he is being “radicalised.” Yet his assent to throwing sulphuric acid in the faces of babies and spreading venereal disease is just as problematic in the book. These exploits amount only to hasty and pragmatic words rather than to morally compromising actions. They are not the clincher that O’Brien claims.
We find Smith spinning in the eye of Orwell’s nightmare, his story increasingly pervaded by its nightmarish illogicality. He declares his faith in the human condition, but he has come from a world of sterilised subhuman automatons, who make the most sense when they are quacking like ducks. From where can he obtain his faith in humanity in the teeth of such human failure? Anybody who has ever been in love will chill to the heart when Smith consigns his lover Julia (Kate Hesketh) rather than himself to the rats. What would it take for ourselves to renounce our loved ones? Physical pain? Humiliation? Who can say whether they would be stronger than Smith or weaker? The fact that we are so unnervingly and subtly compromised makes 1984 great art.
Dan Addis’ superbly unflappable O’Brien is a mixture of philosopher-prince and psychoanalyst extraordinaire. A furiously idealistic nihilism drives him to wield power at its purest and most absolute. He waits at the end of Orwell’s nightmare, as apocalyptic as the antichrist. Thank goodness that the world has moved on.