With the anniversaries of the publication of two of George Orwell’s famous novels coinciding, Daily Telegraph deputy theatre critic Dominic Cavendish has compiled an evening of excerpts from Orwell’s work, interspersing short extracts from his essays with two longer pieces from Coming Up For Air (published 1939) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (published 1949).
Performed on a bare stage, with minimal staging, the evening’s focus is on Orwell’s prose, at times funny and light hearted, but more often than not shocking, thought-provoking and intense. The three actors who read his words have the difficult task of animating the monologues yet not dominating them, remaining an insubordinate presence to the work itself.
The evening begins with an excerpt from Orwell’s pre-war novel Coming Up For Air, read by Hal Cruttenden as the protagonist George Bowling. An unhappily married, overweight insurance salesman, Bowling seems at a crossroads in his life. As war looms inevitably overhead, George is struck by a fear of a ‘streamlined’ future and a sadness about the loss of an earlier, more innocent life he once knew. Coming Up For Air was written ten years earlier than Nineteen Eighty Four and yet the prose displays notes of the dystopian vision – chillingly enacted in the latter novel – that would become termed ‘Orwellian’. Bowling fears for the post-war world and envisions, with ominous foresight, an all-powerful regime with echoes of the not yet formed Eastern bloc.
Orwell’s time serving with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma is reflected in excerpts from his writings about colonial Burma. Ben Porter relates Shooting An Elephant and Alan Cox reads A Hanging; both refer to the taking of a life, though, in a telling reflection of colonial attitudes, the writer seems to express more regret over the death of the elephant than the prisoner.
The evening is concluded with a duologue extract from Orwell’s most famous novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, the author’s chilling vision of living under a regime where every thought, every action and every feeling is patrolled by the all-seeing eye known as Big Brother. As Winston (Porter) is tortured by O’Brien (Cox) in The Ministry Of Love, Orwell’s horrendous vision is brought to life.
Director Gene David Kirk does not attempt to stage these writings in any grand form and he does not need to. George’s fearful predictions and the devastation of Winston at the hands of O’Brien speak loudly enough for themselves. As Cavendish points out in the programme, you cannot do proper justice to any novel on stage but you can point people back to the books. Indeed it is on the page where Orwell’s words can spark, in active imaginations, visions that are even more vivid than any enacted on stage.