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1984 feature

1984: Big Brother is Watching…

Heather Wallace

Novels about bleak dystopian futures are meant to be a warning not a ‘How To’ guide for oppressive regimes.

Lately though George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale seem to be road maps to a world all too easily reached. Both novels have been adapted into critically acclaimed productions, Atwood’s novel on TV and a stage production of 1984 premiered on London’s West End in 2013.

Now the U.K production of 1984 has reached Australian shores. It has been touring major cities for the past few months and plays at the Canberra Theatre from 25-29 July. In a world of totalitarian control, where unquestioning loyalty and love belong to the Big Brother figure head, Winston Smith (Tom Conroy) is a low-ranking comrade rewriting history books into official Nuspeak propaganda but who keeps a secret diary of his thoughts. Julia (Ursula Mills) defies the sex for procreation rule. A spark of shared defiance builds between them and they meet illicitly in an antique shop owned by Mr Charrington (Yalin Ozucelik), but is it only a matter of time before Big Brother catches up with them?

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Yalin last visited Canberra as Iago in Bell Shakespeare’s Othello, and I tell him we’re starting to have annual chats about manipulation and deceit.

“People are fascinated by 1984’s continued relevance – sadly,” Yalin says. “1984 is the Number 1 book people think they’ve read but haven’t,” he says, adding he’s embarrassed to admit he first heard of Big Brother on the reality TV show. “Everyone is so familiar with the concept but they’re blind to the irony of how they know it.”

“The stage production has been around for about four years and when it first premiered there was a resonance even then in the UK. The Australian and US production have some slight script changes to incorporate contemporary relevance.”

He is astounded by how prescient Orwell’s predictions have been, particularly around the presence of telescreens in our daily lives, even though television was a rare luxury in most homes when the novel was written. “Yet Orwell knew how powerful it could be. Every day there is a ritual Two Minutes of Hate, where party workers hurl abuse at supposed traitors of the state on screen.”

The play has also made him aware of the devolution of language in our own world. “Trump’s Twitter feed comes to mind, where he says, ‘this is bad’ or ‘this is good’. Complex thought becomes impossible if we simplify everything, we run the risk that people only want simple fixes. There’s a cynicism toward politicians yet when a charismatic leader emerges with simplistic words people think they can trust them and put their faith in them.”

The cast includes some young actors, all under 12. “They’re protected from most of the play,” Yalin says, “They’re curious though and it’s been fantastic having them in the cast, it lends something to the production, to have an actual child on stage and it hits home, it’s their future we’re playing with.” He laughs when he describes them as “very scary girls in the play” but adds “it says so much about brainwashing the next generation.”

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Thought control is reinforced with physical torture in Orwell’s 1984, and this is played on stage. There have been reports audiences have reacted viscerally, with some vomiting and even fainting. “A lot of the reports have come from the US productions,” Yalin explains, “But I know it’s happened a couple of times in Australia too. Although a woman came to one of the post-show Q&As recently saying she was disappointed it wasn’t that bad at all.”

Despite her disappointment, the play is a tense experience. Yalin doesn’t shy away from the bleakness in either the novel or the production, but adds that there is a glimmer of hope. “It’s very clever, the producers have taken a reference from the novel’s appendix that talks about NuSpeak in the past tense, and incorporated the idea that there might be a point beyond the novel’s end. The play starts with a book group talking about a text, it’s not clear if they’re talking about a found diary or Orwell’s novel.”

Ultimately though, Yalin says the play talks of love and humanity and why hanging on to that part of ourselves is the future’s hope.

the essentials 

What: 1984 by George Orwell
Where: Canberra Theatre Centre
When: 25-29 July 2017
Tickets: $75-$85
Bookings: www.canberratheatrecentre.com.au

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Heather Wallace

Heather’s career in arts and heritage PR spans 15 years, with highlights including working for Sean Connery at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and promoting Australia’s World Heritage places. Her blog, Myths and Misadventures, (http://mythsandmisadventures.blogspot.com.au/), is about life lessons we can learn from the Romans. You can follow her on Twitter @Missmythology. More about the Author

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