There is perhaps no work of 20th-century fiction that has been yoked to more contemporary political debates than George Orwell’s cryptic allegorical novel, 1984. As a testimony to the work’s influence, the very number itself, the phrase “Big Brother is watching,” and even the adjective “Orwellian” have all entered our sociopolitical lingua franca. Timothy Garton Ash, writing in the New York Review of Books, calls the book “indispensable for understanding modern history.”
It therefore gives me great pleasure to welcome you to our presentation of a much-acclaimed international production of 1984. Without giving anything away, I wanted to share a few thoughts with you on Orwell, a few thoughts on the adaptation and a few elements unique to this production:
· This adaptation of 1984 was originally produced by the Nottingham Playhouse, the Almeida Theatre of London, and Headlong, a company known for innovative adaptations of canonical texts. Headlong’s reputation was largely established by Rupert Goold, currently artistic director at the Almeida and one of the leading West End directors.
· Washington audiences may know Goold as the original director behind such recent area premieres as Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica at Studio and Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, which we’re producing next season; he’s also recently directed Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, which premiered here at Woolly Mammoth. Headlong also launched the career of Ben Power, a virtuosic Literary Manager and Dramaturg who is currently the Associate Director at the National Theatre.
· 1984 joins our growing list of international presentations, including last season’s Dunsinane by the National Theatre of Scotland and next season’s The Select (The Sun Also Rises) by Elevator Repair Service. We continue to pride ourselves on presenting work of the highest international caliber to our audiences in Washington.
· The creators of this adaptation are director Robert Icke (Goold’s associate at the Almeida) and playwright Duncan Macmillan (author of Lungs, which had its Washington premiere at Studio in 2011). For their adaptation, Icke and Macmillan stripped away most of what we think we know about Orwell’s novel (the phrase “Big Brother is watching” and the adjective “Orwellian” for most of us) in favor of a visceral approach.
· Technically speaking, not many of us know or remember that 1984 has an appendix, which is the lynchpin for the entire book’s structure. Specifically, the appendix filters all of the events that happen to the book’s protagonist, Winston Smith, through a later, unseen character’s voice. In other words, the novel’s many narrative gaps, jumps in time and seeming inconsistencies are evidence of a drama that we don’t get to read, one that frames the narrative in a metatheatrical, almost Shakespearean manner. Just like Bottom’s remembered dream or Prospero awaking from his staged pageants, one can never be sure if one is witnessing something that has been reported, dreamed or invented. Most eerily, the last word in the appendix consists of a single number: “2050.” Orwell, then, was writing a book in 1948, dramatizing events in a fictional 1984, which are then being read retrospectively from the vantage point of 2050. The drama extends offstage into our very own minds and lives.
· A few words of warning: 1984 is, true to Orwell, an intense dystopian drama. This production contains loud noises including gun shots, bright and flashing lights that create a strobe-like effect and scenes of graphic violence sourced from Orwell’s novel that some audience members may find disturbing. For students, in-class preparation and/or consultation with the STC Education Department is encouraged prior to attendance.
· If you like podcasts, here is a fantastic conversation between Icke, Macmillan, and theatre critic Dominic Cavendish in a noisy London café wherein they discuss 1984’s origins and inspirations.
Michael Kahn is an American theatre director and drama educator. He has, since 1986, been the Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C.. He held the position of Richard Rodgers Director of the Drama Division of the Juilliard School from 1992 to 2006.