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1984

Two Minutes of Hate
Two Minutes of Hate
Photo: McLeod9 Creative
 
A currently popular riff on the MAGA ("Make America Great Again") meme is "Make 1984 a fiction again." Yet, while referencing George Orwell's story as "a dystopian future" is common, such a notion short-changes the actual insights into everyday life in Britain that Orwell saw at the time he was writing. In other words, 1984 is a thinly veiled fiction that details behaviors, technology, and psychological operations (PSYOPS) present at the time Orwell wrote it.

Thirty-five years after the date that he chose for the title of what is now his most famous novel, and 70 years after it was published, the relevancy of Orwell's analysis compounds with every passing day, as we see in the regional premiere of this 2013 adaptation, written by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, now running at Benchmark Theatre.

Sean Scrutchins as Winston Smith, THOUGHT CRIMINAL
Sean Scrutchins as Winston Smith
THOUGHTCRIMINAL
Photo: McLeod9 Creative
 
Winston Smith (Sean Scrutchins) sits at his desk and begins a diary. A narrator tells us that everyone is being watched all of the time (much as Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and Julian Assange/WikiLeaks have revealed), and that what Winston is doing is THOUGHTCRIME. This term comes from Newspeak, an Orwellian version of English in which vocabulary and meaning are reduced to serve the purposes of the Party that runs Oceania (the Americas, United Kingdom, and Western Europe), the transnational state in which Winston's London is situated. Eurasia (Eastern Europe and Russia) and Eastasia (China and Eastern Asia) are the other two global blocs.

The narrative voice (Chris Kendall) shifts to that of a live moderator (Kendall) for a book club meeting in 2050 that is discussing 1984. Kudos to the playwrights for including this perspective, derived from the novel's appendix. Despite his publisher's objections, Orwell insisted that the appendix be included in the book. For those unfamiliar with the appendix, it provides an optimistic conclusion to the novel, analyzing the reign of Big Brother as something that happened in the past and that no longer exists.

The script's conceit of periodically returning to the 2050 book club provides essential context for Orwell's message: the destruction of language leads to the destruction of thought, enabling the destruction of freedom. Three years before the publication of 1984, Orwell's seminal essay, "Politics and the English Language," provided a brilliant explication of how Standard English (Oldspeak) is being destroyed. We see the influence of this essay in the novel.

His sexual life, for example, was entirely regulated by the two Newspeak words SEXCRIME (sexual immorality) and GOODSEX (chastity). SEXCRIME covered all sexual misdeeds whatever. It covered fornication, adultery, homosexuality, and other perversions, and, in addition, normal intercourse practised for its own sake. There was no need to enumerate them separately, since they were all equally culpable, and, in principle, all punishable by death.
—George Orwell, 1984, Appendix.

Rebecca Buckley as Julia and Sean Scrutchins as Winston
Rebecca Buckley as Julia
and Sean Scrutchins as Winston
Trust?
Photo: McLeod9 Creative
 
Winston's SEXCRIME comes as a result of his relationship with Julia (Rebecca Buckley). Before they connect, Scrutchins' finely detailed incremental moments of self-awareness plot the arc of Winston's growing desperation, as a result of his work at the Ministry of Truth (deleting people, UNPERSONS, and their history—picture all your images on Facebook disappearing and your name deleted from all records) and the insipidness of his comrades who work there.

In the breakroom at work, Julia senses Winston's despair. Buckley's visceral sense of hunger in Julia, when she makes eye contact with Winston, gets his attention. She slips him a note—with directions on where to meet her in the countryside—while they pick up some things she has purposefully knocked on the floor. The animalistic undercurrent to Buckley's and Scrutchins' work magnetically conveys the intensity of long-repressed emotions that Julia and Winston eventually release, but their relationship is not a love affair in the normative sense that we use these words:

"... you could not have pure love or pure lust nowadays. No emotion was pure, because everything was mixed up with fear and hatred. Their embrace had been a battle, the climax a victory. It was a blow struck against the Party. It was a political act.
—George Orwell, 1984, Chapter 2.

There are seven telescreens on the set, which act as a persona or personae in their own right. The play begins with a short video clip of news footage displaying actual late 20th and early 21st century historical events—wars, famines, protests, etc.—and morphs into the content of the telescreens in Oceania, by which the Party delivers #fakenews/propaganda and warnings, the daily two minutes of hate, and the famous Newspeak litanies:

WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH

(Left to right) Chris Kendall as Charrington and Sean Scrutchins as Winston
(L to R) Chris Kendall as Charrington
and Sean Scrutchins as Winston
A curiosity.
Photo: McLeod9 Creative
 
Winston's search for a room in the city where he and Julia can get away from telescreens brings him into contact with Charrington (Kendall), who runs an antique store in a low-rent section of the city. Kendall's kind, avuncular manner convinces Winston that the opportunity to rent an "off-the-grid" room from Charrington is on the up-and-up. We, the audience, see Winston and Julia's trysts via the telescreens, at their secret room offstage, just as those watching through the hidden surveillance cameras in 1984 or today would see them.

Dan O'Neill as O'Brien
Dan O'Neill as O'Brien
Deleting history.
Photo: McLeod9 Creative
 
At work, Winston is approached by O'Brien (Dan O'Neill), "... a member of the Inner Party and holder of some post so important and remote that Winston had only a dim idea of its nature." He compliments Winston's proficiency in written Newspeak, and invites him to his apartment so that he can lend him an advance copy of the Tenth Edition of the Newspeak Dictionary.

O'Neill's assuredness as O'Brien draws Winston into his confidence, before O'Neill unleashs his consumate persuasive powers, with O'Brien convincing Winston of the existence of Emmanuel Goldstein and the Brotherhood, "an underground network of conspirators dedicated to the overthrow of the State." He offers Winston a copy of Goldstein's book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, which explicates the principles of tyranny employed by the corporate state. Later, when Winston has been apprehended by the THOUGHTPOLICE, O'Neill's matter-of-fact psychopathic monologue sends chills throughout the house, and this is before O'Brien tortures Winston. If you thought Olivier and Hoffman's torture scene in Miracle Man was intense, hold on to your hat for this!

The ensemble—Perry Lewis (Parsons), Suzanne Connors Nepi (Mrs. Parsons), John Wittbrodt (Syme), Ryan Omar Stack (Martin), and Lorelei Keppler (Child)—recreate memories from Winston's childhood, conjure the atmospherics in his workplace, and are accomplices to his torture.

Add director Neil Truglio's masterful staging—wrapped in a stunnning texture of video (Jason Valenzuela), sound (John Hauser), and lighting (Natalie Murray) effects, plus evocative costumes (Chantelle Rrazier), all woven across, around, and through Antonio Amadeo's fine-tuned set, a flexible and sublime melding of form and function—and you have a "must see" production.

Benchmark Theatre's presentation of 1984 runs through April 13th. For tickets: benchmarktheatre.com.

Bob Bows



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