A Boot Stamping on a Human Face

The Actors’ Gang’ Production of 1984 @ State Theatre.

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” – O’Brian.

For the briefest of seasons, the Actors Gang, a Los Angele’s based theatre group co-founded by Tim Robbins (who directed this production) have brought a play version of 1984 to the arts centre. By the time you read this, you’ll have already missed the all six performances.

It’s plugged on the posters as “George Orwell’s 1984”, which seems redundant – surely most people on earth know of 1984. Which is part of the interest in making a play of this work – the book is so widely read, most members of the audience would know the basics of the story.

The company faced the same problem that faces film directors working from novels: How to fit all that material into a reasonable length time, how to fit say ten hours worth of action into something an audience can sit through.

The adaptation by Michael Gene Sullivan solves the problem by cutting directly to the chase. The entire play consists of the interrogation scenes which make up roughly the last third of the book, with all of the rest of the story told through flashback. Winston Smith is on stage with four other “citizens” throughout, who act out his various transgressions, read from his diary, while an off-stage inquisitor asks questions. Peppering them with phrases like “you must be precise.”

This works, to an extent, although the four “citizens” reveal that they are aware that they’re acting out parts, which somehow breaks the illusion. We in the audience could handle the shifts of time and character as given, without redundant explanation that they were part of the interrogation. At one point one of the characters appeals to the offstage interrogator to stop the action before it goes to far. Like an edit in a film, that jumping about was quite clearly and succinctly done, no excuses required.

The interrogation itself proceeds very realistically, as if from a manual – demanding repeated responses from the subject, punishment for the “thought crimes” he is still committing, and working very hard to unbalance the subject. And making of him a blank slate upon which to reimpress the party line.

“How many fingers am I holding up?”

Any translation of a long story to a short one requires the adapter to chose what to emphasise from the story. For 1984, the several major themes are barely touched on – the extensive musings on the nature of power, for example. And of course many well-known lines are missing entirely. This is not to detract, the story that unfolds is still powerful and still faithful to the book.

What was unusual for such a serious subject was the number of times we found ourselves laughing. Never at a healthy, simple joke, but at the deadly irony of some scenes – the way Winston Smith repeats back to the interrogator some of his stock phrases. In another exchange, when one of the citizens says “Ignorance is bliss”, Winston replies “I thought Ignorance was strength.”

Some of the phrasing used also seems to have been contemporised, which emphasises that the age we’re in is not unlike what George Orwell predicted. Pepper the play with the word “Terrorists” and suddenly it’s a play about today. Which is no doubt a major motivation for doing this play at this time.

This troupe have worked hard to bring the pathos of the story to the stage. Some of the pacing was a bit slow, probably a side effect of the main character being restrained throughout the performance. But the final scenes, which pan out exactly as we expect – everyone knows how this is going to end – are still powerful.

Should there be a return season, I recommend you look it up. In the mean time, now is an excellent era in which to re-reading the book. There are too many striking parallels from that vision of a fascist state in a constant state of war with an unseen enemy, to that we seen every day on our telliscreens…