Play packs a political punch

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 December, 2006, 12:00am

Stage show marks striking similarities between George Orwell's futuristic 1984 and the world today

GEORGE ORWELL'S famous and final novel 1984 painted a bleak portrait of the future. Written nearly 60 years ago, the novel's depiction of an oppressive totalitarian society parallels Hitler's Nazi Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union, but striking parallels can be drawn to today's world.

The social relevance of the material prompted Oscar-winning actor, director and writer Tim Robbins to direct playwright Michael Gene Sullivan's adaptation of the novel with Los Angeles-based The Actors' Gang, a theatre company he helped found in 1981.

'I'd read the book about 20 years ago and quite frankly I didn't remember some of the passages,' writes Robbins, who is also artistic director of The Actors' Gang, in the programme notes to 1984.

'I immediately read 1984 again and was floored by its relevance, its insight, its warnings, and unfortunately realised that this book was more vibrant and necessary now than it has ever been.'

1984 tells the story of protagonist Winston Smith, who lives in London in the political bloc known as Oceania, and remains one of the few living dissidents in a tyrannical political system. As a worker in the Ministry of Truth, Winston is required to re-write history so that it complies with party propaganda.

To salvage his sanity, Winston begins to record his thoughts in a diary - an act punishable by death. When he meets fellow non-conformist Julia, the two fall in love, and are eventually caught, imprisoned and tortured for their crimes.

While remaining faithful to the details of the novel, Sullivan's stage adaptation condenses the action by placing it in the interrogation room.

The rest of the story is told through party hierarch O'Brien and party members who torment Winston and force him to confess by re-enacting his crimes.

'It's a well-written play,' said V.J. Foster, a founding member of The Actors' Gang and film and television actor, who plays the third party member.

'It really captures the book in a very simple way. Sullivan intensifies the claustrophobic world of Winston by bringing it into the interrogation room.'

Foster said Orwell's dystopian novel 'had never seemed that relevant when I read it in the past'. But revisiting the book was a rude awakening. Like Robbins, Foster was taken aback by the similarities between Orwell's futuristic world and the world today.

Particularly for Americans living in a post-9/11 landscape, where individual's rights to privacy have been sacrificed in the name of public security against what Foster calls a 'nameless, faceless, constantly shifting enemy', the play packs serious punch.

'When you revisit the book today, you say 'wow'. And that's what strikes audiences when they see the show. It hits you right in the face. It's got real relevance.'

During rehearsals, Robbins, whom Foster describes as an 'open-minded, thoughtful and sensitive director', focused on the theme of torture and its effects on the torturer, the victim and society.

'We took the point of view of the torturer and asked what these actions do to the characters,' Foster said.

In an eerie twist that magnified the parallels between the play and real life, the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal in Iraq came to light just as the group began work on the show, said Foster.

But despite the obvious parallels, The Actors' Gang, known for its socially relevant and edgy productions, is not force-feeding audiences any political agenda.

'We let the audience see it for themselves,' Foster said. 'We're asking: Is this who we are? Is this the world we live in? How acceptable is this? How do we eliminate threat and celebrate that we are free-thinking creatures?'

Such envelope-pushing material is just the sort the progressive troupe likes to tackle.

'We do theatre that speaks to the world we live in,' Foster said. 'We do theatre that's alive, that'll make [audiences] a little uncomfortable, exhilarated, and say 'whoa, that was amazing'.'

Touring the production across the United States and to Athens and Australia, Foster said audiences had been very responsive. 'We get the sense that people are relieved to be able to talk about it. People are craving to talk about these things because they're real.'

One of the most powerful moments for Foster was when a Romanian audience member approached some of the actors after a performance and told them her own real life 1984.

Her friend had been jailed years ago in Romania for keeping a diary detailing the political events surrounding the tyranny of the country's notorious dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, and later died in prison.

While Foster can't predict how Hong Kong audiences will respond to the production, he said performing to new audiences keeps the work fresh and alive.

'We have the opportunity to bring this play to a non-American audience, and it's awfully exciting to think we'll be able to have a dialogue with a new audience,' he said.

If the play provokes questions in audience members, then Foster said it had done its job. 'It's the role of artists to make people reflect on their worlds and their realities.'