1984 – A Bradford production

Big Brother (John Hurt) is watching them.

George Orwell’s 1984 should really be called 1948. That’s when he wrote it. Contrary to the accepted wisdom, that it’s a dystopian vision of a Stalinist future, it’s actually a satire on his experiences working briefly for the BBC in 1941 and 1942, when its output was virtually under the control of  Brendan Bracken’s Ministry of (Mis)Information, pilloried in Orwell’s novel as the Ministry of Truth.

It would be interesting to see a production of the story taken back to its 1941 setting, in the basement rabbit warren of the studios of Broadcasting House. That was where Orwell had attempted to counter Nazi propaganda in the Far East with a series of cultural programmes targeted at the Indian nationalists, whose flirtation with Japanese imperialism was worrying the Reithian powers that be (the founder of the BBC, John Reith, was for a time Minister of Information, and, ironically, the Reith Lectures were instituted in his honour in 1948).

Interestingly, while the dazzling multi-media stage and screen production of 1984 to be premiered in Bradford’s National Media Museum on June 3 presents the conventional view, its director, Stuart Davies, does not subscribe to it.

“I think he was trying to say that 1984 is something which could be in everybody’s future if people aren’t vigilant,” he explained to me, after I had been given a privileged fly-on-the-wall access to the show’s rehearsals. “It wouldn’t be right to say that life in the UK is anything like life in Oceania. But I think, where Orwell’s predictions are coming true, is that the tools of oppression are being put into place, with technology, the tools of surveillance.

“Also, the way that language is being manipulated to destabilise truth by the people in power, those two things are very prevalent today. The worrying thing is that if we were ever to get a dictatorship in this country, then the tools which they will need to maintain power have already been established.”

Much has been made, publicity-wise, of the fact that John Hurt, who played Winston Smith in the movie (which was actually shot in and around London in the year 1984) is seen on screen as Big Brother, and its true, his non-speaking, brooding presence on the Media Museum’s huge Pictureville screen does contribute to the production’s air of menace.

But the actors of the local Paper Zoo company do a wonderful job in projecting Orwell’s vision to the audience in a venue intended for cinema sound, rather than the spoken word. In a company that is a true ensemble, I was particularly impressed by the rehearsal thespianism of Damien O’Keeffe  as Winston Smith, and especially Ben Eagle’s Party apparatchik, O’Brien, who almost had me believing his newspeak gobbledegook, made sense.

(Morning Star, September, 2009)

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