The set for the blockbuster adaptation of this beloved dystopian novel is true to its gritty origins. The Britain of 1984 is a drab place beset by perpetual austerity, poverty and mindless office work. The play is largely contained to one set: a dour, wood-panelled office in which Winston Smith, isolated in his hatred of the Party, is slowly losing his mind. Towering above the set is a screen that periodically fills with slogans, executions, surveillance footage and surreal brainwashing techniques.
If you’re not familiar with the inner workings of the novel, you’re not alone. “It's one of those books people say they've read when they haven’t,” says associate director, Daniel Raggett. “The novel is a monolith, and it’s so culturally embedded that people think they know all about the book, but they really don’t.”
Therein lies the challenge. How do you introduce a story to an audience that thinks they know it? “A faithful adaptation is one that makes you feel the way you feel when you read the novel,” says Raggett. “It might not be a straightforward linear reading. It's a lot more complicated than that.”
That’s the greatest success of British theatre company Headlong’s version of George Orwell’s novel. It distills events down to the core essence. Headlong’s 1984 is a story about an individual alone in a crowd. That single, versatile set – which acts as an office, a cafeteria, Winston’s apartment, a forest and an antique shop, all without a single redressing, puts us in Winston’s head from the outset.
“That's very much how the novel works for me,” says Raggett. “We see things through his eyes. That room is Winston himself.” It’s where Winston writes an illegal anti-government diary, falls in love, joins the resistance – but it’s all plagued with a sense of hopelessness. His actions are futile.
But they’re actions the Melbourne Festival seems keen for us to remember. Last weekend the whole novel was read aloud in the Legislative Assembly Chamber at Parliament House. ACMI is currently screening the film version, alongside a season of films about surveillance.
It’s a political novel, in the broad sense of the word, but not tied to any particular politics. In readings, films and plays, nothing has had to be changed to make a 60-something-year-old text feel contemporary. “It's always had that relevance,” says Raggett. “Historically, the novel's been claimed by the left and the right, depending on what's happening politically at the time.”
“When the production started in the UK, the Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden leaks were coming out, and people thought we were responding to that,” says Raggett. “Now, people think we're responding to ISIS. It's always been there and it always will be.”
So it remains a period piece, a projection of the future from the past, filtered through our own ever-changing interpretations. Raggett says it’s imperative that they didn’t miss the point by updating it to current politics and a contemporary idea of the future. “There's a passage I keep coming back to in the book,” says Raggett. “The view of the world that the party wanted to propagate was one of concrete and steel, people marching in neat rows; but the reality was different.”
As Orwell puts it: “The reality was decaying, dingy cities where underfed people shuffled to and fro in leaky shoes, in patched-up 19th-century houses that smelt always of cabbage and bad lavatories.”
“And doesn't that let you off the hook a bit if everything is modern and stainless steel?” says Raggett. “Doesn’t the modern feel comfortable?”
And 1984 should be anything but comfortable.