Chatting to the director of 1984 ahead of Bruiser Theatre’s coproduction with Lyric Theatre (from 18 April to 16 May)

You could be forgiven for thinking that we’re now living in the middle of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in this age of self-imposed surveillance with our reliance on apps and social media, never mind government surveillance and the introduction of facial recognition cameras. And with alternative facts and a scant regard for truth and accuracy in some quarters, Orwell seems particularly prescient.

While Animal Farm was the novel favoured by English classes at my school, and served as my introduction to the notion of different political ideologies, 1984 is so much darker and more rewarding each time I’ve picked up and reread my battered copy.

Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s Olivier Award-nominated stage adaptation of the classic novel is coming to the stage of the Lyric Theatre in April.

“Fantastic, bold, immersive and very clever” is how Bruiser Theatre Company’s director Lisa May described the script when I sat down to talk with her last week.

The local cast of nine (eight adults and one child) has just been revealed, and the director is bursting with ideas to take into the rehearsal room.

“I’ve had it in my mind’s eye for the last two or three years. It’s just so relevant and being written in 1948, you would think that Orwell had a crystal ball. Obviously he didn’t, but what he did have was a really amazing understanding of the human condition and our weakness, which is apathy.”

1984 follows a group of historians as they pore over the diary of Winston Smith, discussing the merits of long-erased Comrade 6079, and how his love for a woman called Julia starts to free his thoughts from his mandatory allegiance to a controlling regime. The appendix to Orwell’s novel also forms a vital part of the play.

Richard Clements has been cast as Winston, Sophie Robinson plays Julia, and they will be joined on stage by Tony Flynn, Jo Donnelly, Marty Maguire, Terry Keeley, Richard Croxford and Karl O’Neill.

“The play should appeal to the academic as well as to people like me who love the novel. It’s very true to the original. Icke and Macmillan don’t take any liberties with it, but they have created a framework that is so clever, that addresses all the themes in a very slick and tight manner.”

May has long been a fan of Orwell’s novel and in preparation for directing the stage play, she has been soaking up books and films about the book and its author. She describes 1984 as “meatier that any other show I’ve done in a long time … so I’ve sent the cast a cheat sheet to do some homework” in preparation for the conversations she expects to have at rehearsals about how it all fits together.

“I keep going down a never-ending series of rabbit holes – frustrating and wonderful – as I research. Therein lies madness! So I’m really looking forward to entering the rehearsal room, getting the cast engrossed in it, and beginning to explore it all physically, instead of just over thinking and slowly going mad!”

One of the key concepts of 1984 is ‘doublethink’: the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.

There are parallels with theatre even before adding the notions involved in this particular story. “Theatre in itself is doublethink,” explains May. “[The cast and the audience] know they’re in a theatre and not Oceania. We willingly trick ourselves.”

One unanswered conundrum in the novel is whether Winston’s lover Julia is a member of the Thought Police. “That’s one of those eternal questions that will come up in rehearsals,” says May. “Julia might be, but she might not. That’s also doublethink, so the actors almost have to go through a process of doublethink as we don’t provide the answer.”

Over the last few years, Bruiser have enjoyed success on stage with shows like Putnam County Spelling Bee, Cabaret, The 39 Steps, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Ladykillers, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ and The Colleen Bawn.

May sums up the company’s style as staging physical, fast, choral, ensemble work that places actors at the centre of performances without reliance on elaborate sets or costumes.

While there’s no room for slapstick comedy or farce in 1984, and the set is large – “though we’re going to use everything about it across the play” – there’s a sense of pace in Icke and Macmillan’s script that suits the Bruiser style.

May hopes that local casting, accents and setting – “I’m basing it here because it could be anywhere” – will help audiences to connect more and see themselves in the story.

The Lyric’s executive producer Jimmy Fay says that “this brilliant, chilling and exhilarating adaptation of 1984 will leave audiences gripping their seats in astonishment”.

“It also reminds us of our responsibility as human beings to each other. It is extraordinarily relevant to our current age of fake news and unexpected politics. Big Brother may be still watching us; in fact, he never went away. But like heroes in a David Bowie song, we are always rebelling against the shackles.”

1984 contains scenes of violence and an age recommendation of 15+ is advised.

“This production really shakes you up, it’s not easy viewing,” says May. “I want the audience to feel that discomfort … This adaptation is so clever that it turns the cameras back on us and suggests we are complacent in this, that we should take responsibility for what we put online and how we choose to live our lives.”

One of the lines in the play – though not taken directly from Orwell’s text – says: “The people will not revolt. They will not look up from their screens long enough to notice what’s happening.”

Or as Orwell put it: “Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.”

The Lyric Theatre and Bruiser Theatre Company coproduction of 1984 runs from Saturday 18 April until Saturday 16 May. On the eve of the production, the Lyric will stage New Speak, with dynamic short performance pieces commissioned from five artists (Amadan Ensemble, Zara Janahi, Dominic Montague, Katie Richardson and Lata Sharma) that seek to engage with the urgent questions raised by our current political, social and economic moment.


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