1984: Review of the play

★★★★

CONOR ROSS

Bringing a familiar story to a different medium while both building on and respecting story’s original meaning is a challenge for even the most talented creators among us. It is a challenge that Headlong Theatre faced in their production of 1984 – and it is a challenge that they triumphed over.
1984 is the story of Winston Smith and his quest for truth and love in the face of a ruling totalitarian government known as The Party.

The Party control the people through mass surveillance and altering the past, Winston is tasked with rewriting history by deleting and altering newspapers articles with scepticism. This scepticism leads him having an affair with Julia, risking his life for the sake of love.

The adaptation of Orwell’s dystopian novel boasts an all-Australia cast starring Tom Conroy (Winston) and Ursula Mills (Julia). The performances of Conroy and Mills were dynamic and intimate, a worthy representation of Winston and Julia’s rebellious relationship – a forbidden love that could only be trumped by Romeo and Juliet.


In the novel, Orwell expresses his fears of life under a totalitarian state primarily through the inner monologues of Winston, which leaves the concept of a stage version somewhat difficult to comprehend.
However, not only does 1984 feel appropriate for the stage, the production even excels in ways the book does not. Lights and sound play a significant role, which Natasha Chivers and Tim Reid have used to simulate life under the Party; a jarring, noisy, and abrasive world that is particularly dangerous for “thought criminals.”
Visual media was also utilised with a huge screen towering over the stage projecting live video of scenes that take place off-stage. This technique was interesting from a technical point of view but, unlike the other multimedia elements, it ultimately reduces the impact on the audience.

The actors are also not afraid to break the fourth wall in bringing the audience into the performance, treating them as if they are “Big Brother” himself, with Winston shouting to the crowd, “I know you’re there I can see you. Someone stand up, please help me!”
A sense of déjà vu is achieved in early scenes by secondary characters who repeat the same motions every morning, causing Winston to question his sanity while a news bulletin announces “the chocolate ration has been raised to twenty grammes” for the third morning in a row.


The story of Winston and Julia still has much to say about the threats our civilisation faces, whether it be what Orwell saw in a post-World War Two Britain or in the increasingly globalised world we live in today.
In recent years, the novel has been referenced relentlessly by journalists, media personalities and politicians in relation to surveillance and privacy concerns worldwide. If Orwell could glimpse into the modern world he would likely be concerned at many developments that have been labelled as progressive.
In 1984 the concept of “Newspeak” – that is a constructed language where words are removed by the state in order to hold ideological power – can easily be compared it to the language restrictions being been introduced in the US under the banner of protecting pronouns of the gender neutral.
A move which has caused political rifts between those who see the move as protecting the rights of the oppressed and others who argue it is an Orwellian compromise of freedom of speech.
The popularity of ‘Alt-right’ and ‘Antifa’ movements would also concern Orwell, who famously predicted that accusations of fascism become “almost entirely meaningless” through constant misuse.

His concern would also be on the movements for equality which are becoming too fanatical, too hateful, and even if they do achieve equality — through their means of bastardising freedom of speech — it will be at the cost of two plus two equalling five.
As much as the current state of the world seems dire, there must be some hope for us if intelligent, entertaining, and unyielding productions such as 1984 can still be seen without penalty or censorship.

The Phoenix

“Get up,” said the chief quietly. We all jumped out of our bunks with no man hesitating to stretch or yawn. I smiled to think of how the drill instructor used to shout and scream to get us out of bed. Now our movements were almost mechanical in their efficiency: shirts, pants, and boots flew on with a flurry of movements trained over hundreds of early morning just like this one, though this early morning was special.

“We’re fighting for King and Country today lads, I’ll see you out on the strip.”
My arms and legs operated all the necessary movements by themselves, preparing for my first combat flight. My body’s preparation was automatic, the real fight was preparing my spirit for combat.  I mulled over the idea of king and country while I strapped on my leather helmet.

All I know of the King is his profile printed in the six-pence in my pocket, a noble profile but I’ve seen nobler in strangers walking London’s streets. All I know of Country are lines on a map and I have no pride in my lines compared to a foreigner’s lines. I’m sure there must be much more to it than that – what of our culture and tradition you cry out – well, to be honest, all I see when I look at a foreigner is two eyes, a nose, and a mouth. In simpler words; an ordinary man. That’s not to say all foreigners are ordinary, extraordinary people are rare no matter the country.

By coincidence, it happens that the most extraordinary gentlemen I have met happened to be foreign. The story of how I came face to face with him is equally extraordinary.

Sirens blared. We ran to our planes. The sun was creeping up at our backs, we felt exposed by its blood orange gaze and scurried into our cockpits. My ground crew were flustered and struggled with the propeller. I smiled at the young crewman who wore a tight grimace over his boyish face, I don’t know why he was upset – I would be the one flying over France, it would be me filled with bullets, charred in flames, ripped asunder in a crash. Only God knows why I was smiling.

The emotional whirlwind turned suddenly, the engine roared and I felt a deep dread building in me. I drove the plane to the main airstrip and prepared to take off. The pressure built and built as the plane gained speed. The familiar pull as I sunk into the seat, it felt like an uncomfortable throne, and I, like a common-born usurper would find either glory or death. The front wheels drifted off the ground and the back and I was free. My nerves levelled out as the ground became more distant as we escaped the chilly morning mist growing off the frosted pastures below. We passed above the clouds before the sun’s lingering kiss had left the horizon’s dew-dripped lips. It was a joy that wouldn’t last, I had yet another terrible mission, another burden to be chained to my tired soul.

You are a little soul carrying about a corpse, as Epictetus used to say. Then here we are, six corpses flying into battle, what does it matter then if I am shot down over a French forest, I am dead already. How do the dead feel joy as I do now? Perhaps it is a shared joy, the shadow of a joy cast by migratory birds who also sail above these pink trimmed clouds. Cotton candy. The country fair. Shooting tin planes for a prize. My dad lifting me up onto his shoulders. Strange vivid particulars come to me, moments of joy – which like all moments of joy have given way to pain. And the pain has given way to nothingness. And the nothingness gives way to joy again – and here we are still above the cotton candy clouds. Here I am still asking, screaming, begging for an answer:
“What does it matter if I am shot down?”


<- Part 2 of XX ->

The Mallard

I’ve never seen the world like this before. My father and I are sitting in a ditch by a marsh, it is just before dawn with only a sliver of light creeping up behind us, reflecting softly off the lake. The creatures shuffled and went about their business but in a manner I have not witnessed before.

Of course, I’ve seen animals and critters in the wood across from the paddock. Due to growing up on a farm, animals have been reduced to just part of the scenery, completely ordinary. But this morning I must have been feeling a wonderment that I witness in other children not used to see the grace of a horse’s stride or the quiet peace of a lazy eyed cow, chewing grass in the shade of an elm.

This morning we aren’t looking upon work animals but the wild untamed creatures. And I say I have never seen the world like this because in this moment I feel I am entirely absent from it. What a simple fact I’ve ignored all my life; whenever I have seen an animal they have always seen me. Now here I sit, where we have hidden for a few hours. The scene is free of any of that excited tension that homo sapiens bring to every plain, mountain, lake, or sea. Perhaps we don’t notice it because it’s constantly around us, the fear in every blade of grass we tread on, the horror in every patch of dirt we pry open and rape for its metals that we use for our machines of industry and war.

I would have felt at peace away from all that, here in the gentle marshes, if not for our terrible quest. I secretly hoped our prize, that yet lay hidden within the labyrinth of reed beds, still slept and would decide to sleep in today.

We watched the frogs hop out of the long grass for a morning swim, and the graceful waking swans who in lifting theirs head to the rising sun resemble white lilies. I could not focus on the beauty, for I was distracted by the ugly mission I would have to carry out.

My mission is the hunt, I already know its sequence of actions. My hands flutter – but as soon as my father places the rifle in my hands they are stone. Stone my hands may be – and if that is the truth then I must be a golem for they moved automatically as if enchanted. Muscle memory and practice operated themselves on my arms. I load it, cock it, aim, and wait for the duck call. My father holds the horn to his lips. Hoped not to see that brown dull looking bird, the dullness of its feathers only added to its innocence – it wanted no attention and meant no harm, yet here I was in its home murderous instrument in hand.

Oh God, give me a way out. In excitement, I thought a tremendous sound that blasted in my ear out was Gabriel’s horn and not my fathers. “My day of judgement is not this one,” I barely had time think before a flurry of wings took off from the reeds. I spotted my quarry, slower than the rest, its struggling wings seemed to claw at the wind rather than sail upon it. I followed it with my sight and pulled the trigger. The Recoil. The Release. Final Relief.

If for just an instance, the shot seemed to wound the blue yonder herself, sprouting a burst of bleeding poppies in the sky. The mallard flapped its wings a few times in defiance of Death before falling as a mess of feathers like Icarus. But the hubris belonged to me, I tried to feel bad – what right had I to snatch its life? My father put a hand on my shoulder and the look in his eyes seemed to say that he understood. In honesty, I enjoyed the experience. I loved it despite myself.

Looking back at that spectre of a childhood memory it seems that the apparent twists and turns my life have in reality been a straight A to B journey. Reaching now into young adulthood my mission is still the hunt, but my new quarry is far more cunning than the mallard, though both share wings. This hunt is more sporting for the bird shoots back – though what is far more unsettling is that what I hunt loves to kill just as I do.

I must rest, piecing together mangled memories has been tiring. As the captain says, a good rest should be a RAF pilot’s top priority, especially on the eve of his first combat flight. Goodnight.


Part 1 of XX ->

The Dodo (ii)

My ideal existence didn’t last for long. The meals came less often, the plates came less full. I complained to Kidd but he seemed to be losing weight as well. My health began to fail and I lost the progress I made – it was a slippery slope back to the realm of illness and delirium. Eventually, I lost the energy to read. All I could think of was food.My eyes could barely on the words while I fell into a half dream state.

Puffins and feathers colliding, collecting into fractals I dived through. With a blink I was back on land, standing on the mountain that shadowed my home. I saw the Gnasher in the distance crash through sandbanks and paddocks – riding a wave of blood, bone and screaming souls – sailing upon the land as smoothly as on the sea. A shout echoed from behind me, I turned to see my mother pointing behind me. The Gnasher, a beautiful ship corrupted by some unseen evil, rumbled behind me with its bow cracked into a mouth. Its maw was lined by splintered wooden teeth but its insides were flesh. Someone screamed in the distance and I was consumed, sliding down its gullet till I came to rest in a warm pool housed by a cathedral of bone, its arched ribs were slippery and impossible to climb. My skin felt sticky and then gelatinous, dripping off my body like melted butter leaving my glistening muscles naked underneath. I screamed but the only answer was a breathless laughter. A man’s obese silhouette stood in the distance, he held a lantern and watched me with glee. This man was the source of the corruption, I was certain. He laughed while I screamed till my mouth bubbled away though my jaw bone still flapped away through the bloody stew of my face. I had no mouth, yet I screamed on- I was nothing at all but pain, dead, yet the agony continued, red hot pain pouring down my raw nerves which floated in the syrup of my remains.

I woke startled and swung my fist at the darkness. The punch connected with something that groaned and fell down to the floor.
“Who arr ya?” I spurt out, still half asleep.
“God’s blood! It’s Kidd, put down those bloody weapons,” he grabbed my shoulder and from the warmth of his hand I knew he was not a ghoul. I apologised and then he explained why he was sneaking around during the graveyard shift.
“I brought you some food I stole from under the quartermaster’s nose.” He handed me several loafs of bread and some foul smelling cheese.
“They’ve got all the stocks right under their noses, lucky for you I don’t smell as bad as the rest,” he grinned.
“I don’t know how to thank you,” I said shoving a handful of bread into my mouth.
“Just don’t punch me next time. And don’t worry about it, there’s plenty more where that came from. ”
Plenty more? Why are we being starved then?”
The boards above us creaked, “I’ve got to go, we’ll talk later.”
Like a shadow diving into an inkwell, he disappeared without a whisper more.

I ate my fill of the bread and that stinking cheese (I was hungry enough to eat the paper out of my books at that point) and hid the rest inside under the behind books on the shelf. With my belly full I got some well-needed sleep. But it didn’t last long, I woke up again to the sound of boards creaking above. The footsteps of a very heavy set man paced up and down the deck while incoherent shouting went on.

“WHERE? You bastard— where the devil—-” was all I could pick out of the muffled argument among some curses that are too obscene to repeat to you.
More shouting echoed down to my cabin and I clung to the hammock. Was it a mutiny? Was it Davy Jones taking his tax; the souls of sinful sailors as they slept? I knew not until I saw the planks directly above me bend under the weight of the beast. The hairs on my neck stood up. It froze and began sniffing, softly at first, and then had its nose right on the floor so that I could see its horrid nostrils through the cracks of the floor. The sniffing stopped, beads of sweat rolled down my face and rested on the tip of my nose but I couldn’t dare move a muscle. The paralysis clung to the air and even the ship seemed to stop swaying, but it ended with a single word that he grunted through the boards, “Food!” I heard footsteps running down the stairs, and my door burst forth to a more frightening figure I could have imagined. There stood the silhouette of the man from my dreams. It was as if he had stepped out of the veil of dreams, he let out the same breathless chuckle I had heard before and pointed one chubby finger at me.
“Gotcha.”

 

The Dodo (i)

A good rest was all I needed. Now with my back stretched and my head on straight, I can tell another tale for you. It’s a tale I’ll need vigour for. Vigour and strength are required because of my obligation to punch anyone who calls me liar or questions the true events of this story – doesn’t matter who speaks out, a pirate, a prince, a pauper or a poet – be it man, woman, or child I’ll wallop them. Especially the children! They’ll need to hear and learn from the journey of the Great Gnesher, that is if they want a chance at surviving the jaws of this vicious life which we have all been involuntarily spawned into.

The adventures of the Great Gnesher and her fearsome crew have been argued about for the past two decades, from sailor inns to princely halls across the globe. I am sure many a merry fist fight has been fought over the facts and events of her journey, I am sure because many of them I have started myself. Decidedly I am getting long in the tooth now and my fists merely bruise fools rather than break the hinge off their jaws. It is time to set down what I saw as a crew member on her maiden journey – though not a very maiden like – and the fate of her crew. Hopefully, when I pass onto the next life there is room at the Great Feast for a writer because I fight today with pen and paper rather than sword and axe.

You know how I was found by the Great Gnesher, in few words, a mess. I felt as if I had melted away with the iceberg I arrived on and that this strange hammock I was strung up in was a manger, I was a babe once again. The delusion that I had been reborn or reincarnated wasn’t much an err from the truth, in that the day I was rescued was the start of a new life for a young Leif Erickson.

I woke up in a room under the deck. Compared icy ocean I had lived in the past week this was heaven, an oaken cocoon oozing comfort. I spent my days here illuminated by soft lantern light and my hammock rocked by the gentle swaying of the ship. I was so intoxicated by this comfort that I felt a shock of guilt when I realised I had forgotten about all those that I had left behind.

Apart from a filled bookshelf left by the previous occupant, the last pilot of the ship, all I had for entertainment was stories told by my carer, the young lad William Kidd. He was barely older than me, on the brink of becoming a man, he was sprouting a thin blonde moustache that could only be seen in candlelight. He told me stories of the crew and the places they had travelled.

I listened passively, not having the energy to ask many questions.
“Today the Captain came out of his cabin for once, everybody ducked their heads thinking someone was about to get the lash… but it was only to grab a leg of turkey from the kitchen…” Kidd was a natural born storyteller and maybe that made him a natural born leader as well in the years to come, he knew exactly who he was, where he came from, and where he was going.
“Oh Tahiti was heaven on Earth, the land of milk and honey, no miserable snow and no rain, no offence to Iceland Leif…”
“No offence taken, it only snows 10 months of the year anyway.”
I laugh remembering those times but not for long, the memory is tinged with what was to come.

It was a peaceful and comfortable experience but in that soft womb, I felt guilty that I forgot about my mother, my father and of course the puffin. The puffin was being kept by Cohen, the First Mate. I met him only briefly while recovering — when I saw the way his spindly fingers reached round the door I already knew what sort of man he was.

“I am taking care of your little birdie, he is too tired to come see you though…” he spoke lazily, letting his bottom lip droop down. He was a lazy liar too, every time he lied he simply pointed his droopy eyes at the wall behind me, unable to make the sheer effort to make eye contact.

“Thanks,” was all I could mutter, feeling greasy having just talked to him.

“And don’t get too comfortable,” he prodded me in the chest with a bony finger that he used to comb back his greased black hair, “You’ll be earning your keep up on the high ropes soon enough. I hope you’re not afraid of heights!”
He left laughing with such a lack of enthusiasm that he didn’t seem to even convince himself.  Cohen was the type of man that thinks he’s clever for taking advantage of the sick and helpless, which was the exact state the puffin was in. I needed a plan to get back the bird.

However, that wasn’t Cohen’s only sin to speak of, Kidd told me many tales of his singular brand of functional insanity — which I have never witnessed in another man before or since.


Part 1 of XX ->

The Puffin (ix)

Something was enormous moving below. I could feel the vibrations in the water. Ropes of flesh began floating upwards. With every flash of lightning, red and bleeding they reached closer to us. Out of the darkness, where the limbs came from, a glowing red disc sizzled as it had just be taken out of a forge. But it floated closer and closer and the water bubbled and then I realised it was a giant eye gazing with fury. When the lighting struck again I saw it in full view, in the centre of the growing wave; I would have thought it a rotting corpse if not for the single eye that stared into mine. Its gaunt arms pulled everything it grabbed into its beak that gnashed with a mouth adorned with pin-like teeth. Every aspect of this terrible thing was stretched and elongated, as it had been flattened under the pressure of the sea.

Flat as a page – if it turned to the side it would have disappeared. But it was looking straight at me and snapped its beak at just as the puffin did when I pulled it from its cage. It tendrils broke through the surface of the water to either side of me, they swung in the air as if held by a blind swordsman. It mouth came closer and steam began to boil as the sulphurous bubbles of its breath exploded around. Staring downs the beast’s gullet I pondered my certainty that the puffin is indeed completely a bird.

My thoughts were interrupted by lightning that struck again, on the very nose of the beast. Again and again, it struck the beast. I nearly passed out from the putrid gas that rose, the only thing that has come close to that smell is the bursting of a bloated sea-corpse. Coincidentally a sea-corpse is what I believed I was about to become, the towering wave we had been ascending was tipping over. The wave crashed and I shut my eyes. Darkness, only darkness remained.
I’ve read much about the world, in libraries both decrepit and magnificent, since that terrible night and can only piece together one theory. It must have been Zeus striking down a vengeful Titan back into the depths, and it was merely a coincidence that I sat in the midst of their war. I dreamed that I was Zeus in the clouds looking down and striking those who displeased me. Then it occurred to me that this wasn’t a dream, it was death, and the afterlife is mostly comprised of wreaking revenge on all who wronged us, I was a karmic angel with a score to settle. But my wings burnt up in hatred I spat over the world and I was emblazed all over and I fell like Icarus, my limbs curled up involuntarily like a dying insect.

I fell back down to Earth with a freezing shock and woke up on the iceberg. Or what has left of the iceberg anyway, I was lying half way in the sea, my right hand still death gripped upon the knife embedded in the ice and my left clutched the limp puffin. I would have climbed out of the water had I not felt like half a man, my ribs broken and I could barely flex my fingers. I shook the puffin with my weak hands and it squinted to look at me annoyed that I had woken it from its dream. Maybe it too had been dreaming of wreaking havoc on its puffin enemies, or the shark that had given it that scar above its eye. Or maybe it had been dreaming of punishing me. I questioned why I had kept it alive all this time, just to suffer. I looked around for answers but only a white fog surrounded us.
The iceberg was breaking away before my eyes, we must have been blown a great distance south in the storm. Once again my mind turned to killing the puffin, out of mercy this time, not for food. I knew its pain well. The adventures in children’s books never describe the agony the heroes must go. The prince battles the dragon but the story never speaks of his burns that take months to heals and the nights he wakes up screaming from nightmares.

Another point was the puffin’s body might sustain me for a couple more days, I could drink its blood as well.

I could go on and list every reason it was logical to kill that bird, but despite every reason and every obligation – I couldn’t take that birds life, it wasn’t mine to take. I threw the knife into the ocean and decided that Fortuna would be our murderer, I’d not dirty my hands. And just as that knife hit the water’s surface, a rope landed on my shoulder.
I gripped it and it went taunt, its end lay hidden in the mist.

The rope felt ordinary but I still shouted, “Are you heaven sent?”

“Are you daft?” A voice shouted back, the mist cleared and there stood, not a rope thrown by St Peter, but a ship. Its exterior black and charred though it looked as strong as Samson. The sailors beckoned to me and I tied the rope around my waist and I hugged the puffin to my chest. The pulled me up in silence when they saw my condition, some have said I looked like a corpse and they feared they had pulled a ghost up onto their ship.

That was the circumstance of how I first planted my feet on the deck of The Great Gnasher, which was then captained by the not so great Captain Cohen. My feet didn’t stand planted for long however, I passed out as soon as I felt something solid under my feet but was caught by a boy with blonde hair about my own age. The two dozen souls who kept the ship running also found time to nurse me back to health, two dozen souls that Gnasher had also rescued, who all had stories just as crazed and desperate as mine. The story of the blonde haired boy who caught me is especially strange and just as triumphant, it is the story of William Kidd.

That story is for another time though, I am yawning between words and my eyes feel dewy, salivating with a hunger for some sweet dreams. Time for bed, and if you feel like sleeping too I’ll meet you in the land of nod. Before you close your eyes to bliss, please heed this advice; make sure you are not sleeping on an iceberg!


 

<- Part 9 of 9

The Puffin (viii)

Wildernesses stretch out over the majority of the world, so I think it would be fair to refer to it as just one entire wilderness, as all wildernesses offer the same thing to young men, treasure and death. From all my travelling it has struck me that the wilderness is the world, and everything else – the small towns and cities, are mere oddities compared to the overwhelming stretching wilds. Call it sea, desert, or jungle; it was here before us and will be here after, without hesitation, its vines’ll grow over our roads, ruins and bones. Men and women who have become stranded in a wilderness know greater peace and horror than civilisation will ever be able to provide.

So it was, that I had been in a tranquil daze for much of my remaining days on the iceberg. But now that relief was beginning to fade. The Puffin gave out less food, its strength was failing as mine was, I had no solution to this. The waiting and silence ate away at me, just the warming sea ate away at my iceberg. If only I could float away with it, to evaporate and let my problems disappear into the mist.

I wished for something to happen, anything to break the unbearable boredom. A grinning djinn must have floated past just that moment, and granted my wish. My hands shook with fear as I saw the dark clouds congregate on the horizon, they flashed glares at me, planning my demise in deep grumbling thunder. Though my hands shook in fear, inside I was sunny and glad that change was coming at last, even if that change was from this life to the next.

The puffin must have sensed the tension in the water, it returned early from fishing and hid under my arm. We didn’t have time for the last meal – the clouds were already above. A light rain fell, I said a prayer for mercy for my Mother, who would have to live for herself — for myself, who would be judged at the Gates shortly — and for the Puffin, the last friend I would ever make. The rain fell harder and the waves breathed in and out faster. Each one growing twice the size of the last until we were surfing down a mountain of foam. Slipping off the ice I dug my knife into the surface and with my other hand gripped onto the puffin. My eyes closed involuntarily because of the sheer force of the wind, raindrops became thrown needles. For hours it seemed we clung on while the world collapsed around us.

In a false moment of peace, I made the mistake of opening my eyes. At that moment, were in the bottom of a trough between the waves. So high were the waves, so deep was this trough; that I saw the seafloor and all the inky black monsters that crawled and slithered in the darkness who looked back at me hungrily. Lower we sank towards the creatures, they’re pale mandible screaming in ecstasy for our sun-kissed flesh. We rose just as their black tentacles licked the bottom of my feet. All I could see was the pure hatred in their inhuman eyes as they realised they had been betrayed by the Great Above once again. Pulling my eyes away from theirs, looked up the slope of the mountainous wave that towered over us. Lighting struck behind it, illuminating it like some ghastly celestial lamp. All its contents became visible. Atlantean tragedies and comedies painted on broken murals swirled by, Egyptian chariots raced each other- skeleton hands still gripping the reins, these ancient wonders were only ever see by Moses, a puffin, and me. But behind these wonders lay a terror unlike any.


<- Part 8 of 9 ->