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1984. It is just a number, right? 101. Again, just another number, right? Maybe, maybe not. There may well be more significance to both numbers but the man who engraved them onto the psyche of generations is no longer here to answer. George Orwell was a committed socialist with a story — a vision perhaps — of a dystopian nightmare set in the year 1984. His hero, Winston Smith is tortured in Room 101. Both numbers represent Totalitarianism at its worst: civil liberties stripped from the populace, lies as truth and invasive security systems to control.
George Orwell’s 1984
Northern Broadsides and Dukes Lancaster
with Stroud Theatre Company
As Northern Broadsides began their run of 1984 at The Dukes in Lancaster, I could not help feeling Orwell’s words are often ringing true today: Guantanamo Bay, waterboarding, the War on Terror and the use of the media for propaganda by governments across the globe all serve as a stark reminder of Orwell’s nightmare.
From the moment I entered The Dukes, with a TV in the entrance showing CCTV footage of the patrons, to sitting down before the performance and taking in the bleak artistry of the set, I was prepared to be drawn, no dragged, into Orwell’s dystopia, just as I was in 1984 when I studied the novel at school.
It is always going to be a hard task to set such a novel within the confines — time, space, materials — of a play. However, a mere 5 people, with judicious use of TV screens in the set, managed admirably. A well thought out set, combined with the skills of the actors, portrayed the intensity of Orwell’s tale well. More so the leitmotifs of hope, albeit hope ultimately forlorn, and a promise to meet in “the place where there is no dark”, signifying that hope, rang like chimes throughout.
The story of Winston’s rebellion, orchestrated by the powers to destroy — nay control — the people was sympathetically treated. We, the audience, were led to believe in Winston’s hope only to have ours dashed at the same point as his. The performers aptly used monotone in their narrative to put over the bleakness of life in a totalitarian state and the lack of true hope. Orwell’s nihilism, and the significance for us able to think openly of the book’s working title of “The Last Man in Europe”, were hammered into us as we watched the events unfold on the stage. Orwell’s nightmare became our reality for two short hours. Or will it be longer? As the line in the play had it, “our hope lies in the future”. Or should that read “our hope: lies in the future”?
Turning from the play itself to its relevance today, more than 60 years since Orwell’s original novel was penned, our leaders, following the defeat of Nazism, Fascism and totalitarian Communism, would have us believe that utopia is in sight. Francis Fukuyama wrote that we are all headed on a wagon train to a liberal democracy utopia. Looking through the news and at events, injustices and inequities across the globe, I doubt them very much. So, I believe, would Orwell. After all as he put it when Winston is tortured in Room 101 by his captors “we do not seek to destroy our enemies, we seek to change them”. Echoes of enforced economic liberalism and the current chaos in Iraq anyone?
1984. It is just a number, right? Remember, “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength”. If you forget then get along to The Dukes until the 9th of October for a stark reminder. Northern Broadsides will be happy – if that is the right word – to oblige you.