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Big Brother is watching at Playhouse
GEORGE Orwell’s classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is a vision of a dystopian future of war, mind control and omnipresent surveillance that raises many uncomfortably relevant questions.
But one of the most telling parts of the work for many can be found not in its main body but in an appendix that it is easy to simply skip over.
This appendix is still the subject of intense critical debate, and it has provided the main inspiration for an adaptation of the 1948 work being presented at Salisbury Playhouse by Headlong and the Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company next week.
Director Robert Icke said: “The appendix is the most significant part of the book. It is interesting that it even has an appendix because most novels don’t; it is something you find in academic works.”
In the novel, the protagonist Winston Smith is a low-ranking member of a society in which a person’s every move is watched by the all-seeing Big Brother and where even thinking rebelliously is classed as Thoughtcrime.
No individuality is allowed and the ruling Party is forcing implementation of an invented language called Newspeak to try to prevent rebellion by eliminating all words related to it.
Winston breaks the rules by doubting the status quo and by falling in love. He starts to read the work of dangerous rebel Goldstein.
But he never finishes Goldstein’s work and never gets to the crucial part – he is captured, tortured and thrown into the dreaded Room 101.
“I think it is quite deliberate that the book is stopped there,” says Icke. “When we are given a book, most of us don’t read the difficult bit at the end.
“You are Winston when you read, so when Winston stops, you stop.”
And for the reader of the novel it ends there – unless they go on to read the appendix.
The appendix is written in the past tense, looking back at the events of the novel and leaving the reader to wonder if they should revise their interpretation of what they have just read.
“What is exciting about Orwell is that he writes about the fundamental questions: What is real? What is imagination? Are you being watched?” says Icke.
“There are questions in the novel that go so far beyond 1984 and so far beyond communism or the Stasi. They resonate in so many different ways.”
Icke and co-adapter Duncan Macmillan began working on their production of 1984 a good six months before recent surveillance rows involving the US National Security Agency.
“It was one of those moments when life catches up with art,” says Icke.
People coming to see the play don’t have to have any knowledge of the book, but for those who are familiar with it, the director hopes it will hold some surprises and prompt lively debate afterwards.
“I knew it was a good book before we started on this,” he says.
“But now I think it is a great book.
“The more we have worked on the play, the greater my admiration and respect for the novel and for the writer.
“The difference between a good play and a great play is that in one the detail is important, while in the other it is the idea that is important.”
Nineteen Eight-Four was published in 1949, and yet its themes resonate as keenly now as they did in that era of post-war communist paranoia, perhaps because of the way in which it explores ideas that can be applied to anyone at any time.
As Icke says: “It is a vision of a future that embraces whatever future you are living in.”
* 1984 is at Salisbury Playhouse from Tuesday, October 8 to Saturday, October 12. Tickets on 01722 320333 or at salisburyplayhouse.com.
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