February 17, 2014

Big Brother is Still Watching

             The year 1984 has come and gone and we have left it relatively unscathed, or have we? As I write this, a large black flat screen television is mounted in the center of my living room. The resemblance to George Orwell’s daunting telescreens in 1984 is uncanny, yet the presence of my television has never had the power to perturb me. Perhaps it should.

A telescreen not looking altogether dissimilar from my flat screen television…photo courtesy of Tristram Kenton 
             What with talks of the National Security Agency (NSA) in the United States and Google possessing the power to turn on our phones’ camera and recorder at any time, we have long surpassed Orwell’s dystopia. We are living it. The government potentially has the capabilities to spy on us through our computers’ webcam or microphone. Then, who can ignore all of the wiretapping scandals that are so prevalent today? Under the post-9/11 Patriot Act in the U.S., the government has been obtaining records on every single phone call made. The British press, especially the News of the World, found itself in a sticky situation by hacking into personal cellphones to gather information for news stories. The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in England records and shares information with the NSA, as do Germany, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.

             Orwell’s nightmare seems to have come true. As his book was published in 1949, I doubt that he could have ever imagined what we would be facing come 2014. On Valentine’s Day, I was invited to a press night showing of 1984, spending the kitsch holiday with my one true love – the theatre. My second trip to the Almeida Theatre after American Psycho (reviewed here), it is quickly becoming one of my favorites.

             The adaptation of 1984, created by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, was hands down one of the most emotionally debilitating and powerful stage productions I have ever seen. Not often does something move me so forcefully that I find it hard to shake off, but 1984 successfully had me perched on the very edge of my seat. As I listening intently, a story unraveled that could just as easily be yours or mine as it was Winston Smith’s (Mark Arends) and Julia’s (Hara Yannas). Smith and Julia work at the Ministry of Truth (as with all of the ministries in 1984, think the opposite of its namesake). There, they rewrite history inline with the government’s ideal version of events. 1984 as a book is haunting in itself, but on the stage, it became more than I could have ever imagined. Matching images, sounds, and faces to a harrowing narrative sent chills down my spine and raised goose bumps on my flesh.

Julia played by Hara Yannas and Winston Smith played by Mark Arends, photo courtesy of Tristram Kenton 
             From the blaring drone of announcements raising the chocolate ration to twenty grams again, to the threatening figure of Big Brother (leader of the Party), to the blinding lights, I was transfixed by the stage as if I too were living a life of repetition and order. In a society where “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength” is a way of life, Smith and Julia decide to rebel. Thoughtcrime is the notion that all crime begins as a thought, meaning that all crime is thoughtcrime. Smith and Julia become the ultimate thought criminals, risking their lives just by carrying on romantic relations with one another. Holding festering thoughts about bringing down Big Brother when constant reminders of “Big Brother is watching you” exist is the ultimate definition of risky. The Two Minutes Hate is a daily broadcast of thoughtcrime occurrences, where citizens are encouraged to shout out derogatory language towards the thought criminals. Smith starts a diary where he tracks his thoughts, making the vital error of leaving discernable proof of his rebellion.

Smith jotting down forbidden thoughts in his diary, photo courtesy of Tristram Kenton
             Smith and Julia find a little room they can rent where they believe no telescreen is watching them and they can be together and read what is referred to as The BookThe Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism was supposedly written by Emmanuel Goldstein (leader of the opposition to the Party), listing all of the contradictions Smith has come to recognize within his society. O’Brien (Tim Dutton), a member of the Inner Party, questions Smith and Julia on what they would do in order to bring down Big Brother. To all suggestions, Smith doesn’t falter, except when O’Brien suggests that Smith and Julia betray each other, an act they both deny they would carry through. Inevitably Smith and Julia are confronted, by O’Brien no less, who actually is The Book’s true author.

Smith receiving The Book from O’Brien (Tim Dutton) as Mr. Charrington (Stephen Fewell), Syme (Matthew Spencer), and Mrs. Parsons (Mandi Symonds) look on, photo courtesy of Tristram Kenton
             1984 very cleverly made use of the idea of intrusion. Through live camera feeds on stage, the audience was able to witness Smith and Julia in the comfort of their rented room, forcing us into the position of the Party, viewing their most vulnerable moments when they thought they were alone. We were placed on the side behind the telescreen, allowed the luxury of having ours turned off. Across an elongated screen, images of Smith and Julia were projected for our voyeuristic delight right up until the moment they discovered they were in fact not alone, having been watched the entire time.

The Two Minutes Hate, photo courtesy of Tristram Kenton
             Smith and Julia are carted away to the Ministry of Love where they are tortured mercilessly by O’Brien, who else? This production of 1984 featured no intermission, which actually worked very well in its favor. A pause halfway through would have ruined the natural flow that the play so masterfully delivered.  As Arends put it to me later, after the intermission when everyone had eaten their ice creams, we would have been subjected to mostly torture scenes, making us regret that chocolate chunk or vanilla swirl.

Smith and Julia enjoying one of their last secret rendezvouses, photo courtesy of Tristram Kenton
             Smith is humiliated in an attempt for him to be “cured,” as O’Brien holds up four fingers, but tells Smith there are five. Beaten down into submission after grisly punishments and electrocutions, Smith eventually stops protesting that two plus two equals four. O’Brien boasts that if he says he can fly and that’s what his reality wants him to believe, then he can fly. Smith’s torture is almost unbearable to watch and wholly a draining experience. Again we are shown up-close shots of Smith’s anguish and discomfort as a colleague of O’Brien’s films the whole ordeal. The lights illuminated the audience and we were dragged into O’Brien’s sadistic plan as we became Party members aiding and abetting the inhumanity. We were all listening as O’Brien asked Smith to tell us what could possibly bring down the Party. Witnessing Winston’s piteous reply of “Love” battered us when we were down at our emotional low point.

"Emmanuel Goldstein" (Richard Bremmer), the sworn enemy of the Party, pictured at the back as Martin (Christopher Patrick Nolan), Julia, Smith, and O’Brien get fired up, photo courtesy of Tristram Kenton

             Smith pleaded with us to help him, begged us to take action, but we all remained frozen, proven just as guilty by inaction. When I spoke with Arends afterwards, I told him that I desperately wanted to get up there and assist him. I guess we really are the dead, immobilized and unmoved, just as Smith and Julia chanted frequently throughout the play. Then came Room 101, where thought criminals are taken, and it is adjusted to suit the worst imaginable terror of each particular individual. For Smith, it just so happened to be rats, so a metal cage with two starving rats was placed over his head until he betrayed Julia, which of course, he did.

Julia sharing “real” chocolate with Smith that she procured from a Party member, photo courtesy of Tristram Kenton 
             A changed man, Smith lives out the rest of his days unquestioning and almost inhuman. I cannot sing the praises of 1984 enough. A phenomenal cast, a unique set, and a very relevant plot, the play acted as a frightening sign of the times. After the show, I caught up with Arends to relay my compliments, and as I left to catch my train home, I ended up behind him and Gavin Spokes (who played Parsons, a Party member from the Ministry of Truth) on the escalator at the station! Taking my chance for an impromptu interview on the train, I quizzed Arends on what would be in his Room 101. He couldn’t reveal what one of them would be, but he obliged me by divulging his fear of flying. Arends told me that he is also the writer, director, and composer of Something Very Far Away, a production that showed at the Unicorn Theatre here in London. Clearly a man of many talents, the Liverpool import is taking London by storm.

Meeting Arends post-production
             1984 is sold out until the production’s end on March 29th, but day tickets can still be acquired. Every morning at 11a.m., Almeida Theatre is releasing a limited number of seats for that day’s performance(s). Head on over to the theatre so as to not miss out! Tickets will also be on offer over the phone and through the theatre’s website, but only if there are more tickets than people waiting in person. For more details on 1984, see here.

Martin, Syme, Mrs. Parsons, Mr. Charrington, and Mr. Parsons (Gavin Spokes), photo courtesy of Tristram Kenton
             [Author’s Note: I have mentioned in previous posts that I am a staff writer and Arts and Entertainment editor for my university’s online newsletter. An exciting update is that today, March 20th, marks the release of The Gazelle’s third print edition, where my above review of 1984 has been published.]

The Gazelle pictured against my looming telescreen, I mean, television

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