1984’s Timely Return

The Adelaide Review finds out why there could hardly be a more appropriate time to stage 1984 than in our own era of political ructions, ‘fake news’ and mass surveillance.

“It’s sort of comforting isn’t it – ‘Big Brother is watching you’,” says an actor of one of 1984’s key lines. “It’s like he’s watching over you, protecting you.”

“Yes, yes,” agrees Corey McMahon, associate director of the Australian tour of the lauded production, “and that really speaks to what Orwell experienced with the rise of Hitler and everything else. It’s also the same feeling as in that North Korea documentary I linked you to.”

Another actor throws his two cents in: “It’s like that phone voice you hear when you’re on hold. You know, ‘We value your call’.”

This cast is new, studying scripts around a table as McMahon guides them through Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s stage adaption of George Orwell’s 1984. They will tour for four months, following from 1984’s own UK and US tours, and previous showing at the 2015 Melbourne Festival. Since the show is well established and rather rigorously planned, it’s important for these actors to fully understand the black boots they’re stepping into.

“There’s a little bit of wriggle room in it,” McMahon says. “We’re not reinventing the wheel though by any means, because it all works so brilliantly. Any attempt by us to pull that apart would bring the play undone, I think.”

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Corey McMahon (Photo: James Hartley)

McMahon is certainly the person to guide the cast and drive this production in the southern hemisphere once more. McMahon worked on a UK tour of 1984 and says that without having done so, he might not be able to help present “such a beautifully and formally constructed piece of theatre” in the way it was intended.

“Because the play is not a standard piece of drama with a beginning, middle and end, and it embraces a whole other level of theatrical complexity and storytelling, it meant that for me to try and understand the play without having gone through the process of shadowing the creative team in the UK would have been really tricky.”

It’s a timely staging of the story, with recent years’ news cycles having been dominated by stories of surveillance, authoritarian rumblings and the ever-rolling march of digital technology into our lives. McMahon is at pains to say that this show isn’t a reaction to present circumstances, though. It stays true to Orwell’s core vision where “he is writing in response to the rise in fascism in Europe”.

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Tom Conroy in rehearsal for 1984 (Photo: James Hartley)

“To me, it’s more frightening that events that played out 70 years ago are playing out again. It’s not that he was looking forward to the future and going, ‘Watch out everyone, this is what it’s going to be like.’ He wasn’t ringing a bell in that respect. He was just responding to the events happening to him at that moment. Now we get to 2017 and everything that he experienced, and I hope I’m wrong about this, is potentially coming together and being played out again.”

One such then-and-now similarity is in the re-emergence of propaganda (or ‘fake news’ as we now call it) and 1984’s total renovation of truth and language. Raising the recent public brawl between Donald Trump and the US media over his inauguration attendance numbers, McMahon asks, “Who do you believe with things like this?”

“The idea of fact and objective truth suddenly is up for grabs. When you have Kellyanne Conway, his advisor, on television saying there’s facts and there are alternative facts, our version of facts, it’s not a stretch to see that played out in the play.”

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McMahon says we are subject to a “much subtler, much more insidious form of surveillance” from governments, social media, our peers and even ourselves.

“On Instagram for example, or Facebook, we tell everyone where we are, what we’re doing, what we’re eating, the café that we’re in, you know, the milk’s off, the cat’s been hit by the car, 20 comments from your friends, it’s your birthday.”

Citing a creepy piece of serendipity, McMahon explains that the cast and crew wished him a happy birthday on one of their first days of rehearsal. How did they know? Facebook told them, even though he had deleted his profile before rehearsals started.

So are we already there? Have we already arrived in a 1984-esque society? “I think we missed the boat on that one,” says McMahon. “I think it happened a long time ago.”

1984
Saturday, May 13 to Saturday, May 27
Her Majesty’s Theatre
statetheatrecompany.com.au

Header image: Production shot from 2016 UK tour of 1984

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