Perhaps the most enduring political literature of the 20th century comes to terrifying life on stage in the new production by State Theatre Company of George Orwell's dystopian nightmare, '1984'. It is the story of one man, Winston Smith, and his private war against Big Brother.
Actor Guy O'Grady has been cast in the role of Syme, a colleague of protagonist Winston Smith at the Ministry Of Truth. Syme is a linguist who is an integral part of The Party's process of perfecting the language of Newspeak.
“Syme is a very accomplished and intelligent bloke,” Guy explains. “He's a lexicographer and a writer of dictionaries. He serves an important function in elucidating Newspeak to the reader or audience. Part of his demise is how lucidly he does talk about Newspeak and where he foresees the future of Newspeak and thought-crime."
“What he's saying would have worried his superiors in the Ministry of Truth ['minitru' in Newspeak] sufficiently that he's 'unpersoned'. His ideas are very dangerous, and that's what gets him into trouble. He speaks very beautifully and so it's a real joy to work in this role; it's great words to say.”
This latest production has been adapted by British playwrights, Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan. Barely into his 30s and Robert is considered the 'great hope of British theatre'; Guy says Robert's adaptation is possibly the most faithful yet for its dramatisation of the novel's appendix which deconstructs the linguistic principles of Newspeak.
“I think it's really faithful,” he says, “in particular the inclusion of the appendix that Orwell wrote in the original novel. It's the first time, we think, that someone's been able to successfully dramatise the appendix, the principles of Newspeak which appear in the back of the book.
“What they've done is cleverly constructed a discussion that happens at the beginning of the play and appears throughout it; the laying-out of Newspeak is central to my character's journey in the play. I think they've done a very clever job of it and it will help the audience key into the play from the beginning.”
Icke and MacMillan's innovative version of '1984' first hit the stage in 2013 and has enjoyed a hugely successful international run, having been seen by over a quarter of a million people worldwide. The State Theatre production will feature an all-new Australian cast for its limited two-week run at Adelaide Festival Centre starting this month.
Currently working under associate director Corey McMahon as Robert opens '1984' on Broadway, Guy says the play is coming together well, with a set and sound design that captures the impending claustrophobia of the world Winston inhabits.
“Later in the play we get to explore not only the claustrophobia Winston feels, but as the story and scope widens there's a lot to play with. It's going to put the audience right in the centre of the story as we observe Winston; we're kind of in his mind and this production achieves that quite well. The set complements that sense of claustrophobia beautifully.”
This production of '1984' comes at a time when Orwell's vision of a society controlled and oppressed by constant surveillance and personal scrutiny seems more like prophecy than imagination.
“It's such good timing as well to come back to this story,” Guy says. “I think it's going to resonate with people quite amazingly. I'm sure when [Icke and MacMillan] were devising this they had no idea what was going to happen in the future, apart from the broader things Orwell had predicted, but it's going to resonate.”
'1984' Tour Dates13-27 May – Her Majesty's Theatre (Adelaide)
31 May-7 June – Comedy Theatre (Melbourne)
14-18 June – Queensland Performing Arts Centre
28 June-22 July – Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney)
25-29 July – Canberra Theatre Centre
4-13 August – His Majesty's Theatre (Perth)