Fractured Visions: A New French-Canadian Production of 1984
Since it was published in 1949, George Orwell's novel 1984 has not ceased to transcend the context of its writing and prove its relevance in surprising ways—which may be a kinder way of saying that over the years it has been imbued with a rather elastic significance by people of all political stripes who retain some dim memory of it from English Literature courses. As an example of its far reach, the stage adaptation by U. K. playwrights Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, translated into French by Guillaume Corbeil, was produced in Québec City in the autumn of 2015. As I took my seat, I wondered what use would be made of this material, here in the most politically conscious province of Canada.
The production, however, evades the trap of heavy-handed analogy to zero in on the fractured nature of reality, giving sinister significance to Orwell's proposal that “A lunatic [is] simply a minority of one.” The novel makes clear that Winston Smith is in fact one sane man in a lunatic society, but director Édith Patenaude's production seems far less certain of that fact. The writers have explained in interviews that the framing story and the use of shifting, hallucinatory repetition are meant to make audiences question the reliability of any text, including the one unfolding on stage, but in my case this had a perhaps unintended consequence. I reached a point of immersion in the story at which it no longer felt like text; what appeared fractured and unreliable was the human mind itself, an idea that is frightening on an even deeper level.
Part of the reason for this subtle shift might be actor Maxim Gaudette in the role of Winston Smith. Gaudette has won awards for his role as the Killer in Polytechnique, the haunting 2009 québecois film chronicling the massacre which targeted female engineering students at a Montréal college. Though this character seems worlds apart from Winston Smith, low-level Party clerk, there are similarities in the way Gaudette portrays them. Both have a fervent ideological naïveté. Both are young—in a significant departure from Orwell, who made Winston's lover Julia twelve years younger than him, actress Claudiane Ruelland clearly plays her as an older, more experienced woman. And, albeit in a different way, this Winston is quite clearly disturbed from the moment he appears on the stage.
The play provides us with a framing device: a group of people sitting and drinking coffee, evidently a book club discussing the novel 1984, which they gush over while obviously not quite understanding it. But one member of the group sits silently staring into the middle distance, an increasingly uncomfortable presence. A friendly “Where are you, Winston?” is the trigger that launches him upon a fragmented internal journey — but are we witnessing memories? A nightmare? He opens a notebook and sees Death to Big Brother written over and over in his own hand. A moment later, the narrative has moved back in time to when he first bought the notebook at an antique shop, and every page is visibly blank. It is a hallucinatory effect that would not be out of place in a horror film, and indeed set-designer Patrice Charbonneau-Brunelle admits in the programme notes to drawing inspiration from that genre. Eerie repetitions increase the unreality. The phrase “Où es-tu, d'après toi?” (“Where do you think you are?” or “Where are you, according to you?”) is repeated again, sometimes by a character, sometimes by a disembodied voice. The moment when Winston and Julia run out of coffee in their hideout echoes the waitress, also played by Ruelland, serving coffee to the book club in the framing story. Conversations at Winston's workplace canteen are repeated over and over in a nightmarish loop, stumbling past disturbing gaps after a character is arrested and disappeared.
When I'm seeing a play not in my mother tongue, I have a tendency to focus on technical aspects rather than language—this being also the area in which most of my own theatre background lies—but even discounting this bias, I am convinced that the lighting in this production is particularly strong. Throughout the first half only small areas of the stage are lit, often by a reddish, fire-like glow, and the characters give the impression of groping disoriented through darkness as they pass from one scene to another. Some moments, such as the working class woman singing in the courtyard, or Winston's childhood memory of stealing his mother's chocolate ration, occur completely off-stage, but are captured by a video camera wielded by a stage-hand and projected onto the overhead screen. This device was apparently used in the original 2013 London production to remind the audience of the constant surveillance to which Party members are subjected, but in this case it also gave the magical sensation of peering into secret chambers of the mind.
The moment Winston and Julia go to the office of the Party official O'Brien, a bank of brilliant LED lights switches abruptly on. The contrast with the previously dim lighting is so great that it produces a stab of pain in the eyes. This is unsettling, since, for audience members who have read the book, it presages what is coming. Finally, at the moment of Winston's arrest, as O'Brien's disembodied voice affirms that he will meet him “where there is no darkness,” white, institutional-style fluorescents illuminate the entire stage, and much of the audience area as well. The effect was very like the house lights going up at the end of a show, yanking you out of the world of theatre into your wide-awake reality—but in this case, the reality is the interrogation scene.
In the end, the play returns to the framing story of the bookclub. Winston now appears to be sitting in a motorised wheelchair. His last encounter with Julia, where he confesses that he betrayed her, is presented as a kind of reverie in which he mistakes the waitress for his old lover. The implication is that his body and mind have been permanently disabled by his experience. In light of this, how do we interpret what came before? Was it flashbacks of memory trying to surface through Winston's brainwashing, or the hallucinations of a mind broken by torture?
Coming after this emotional roller-coaster, the closing scene in this adaptation seems somewhat weak. As the book club discussion continues, we learn that the year is now 2050. “Newspeak” phrases are still used casually in conversation, and 1984 is regarded as a non-fiction document of a dark period in humanity's past, its author allegedly unknown. This innovation by the writers was inspired by Orwell's appendix to the novel, which is written as if from some future period after the defeat of Big Brother and the Party. While it succeeds in introducing a hopeful note into what might otherwise be a narrative of nearly unbearable horror, it also signals a jarring retreat from the visceral to the facilely intellectual. As the discussion group breaks up, one participant asks whether it is conceivable that the Party never actually disappeared, that it was merely in its best interests to seem as if it had. The idea is intriguing, but here it feels clumsy and inadequately developed, instead of growing organically out of the play that came before.
In the programme notes, director Patenaude focusses on 1984's indisputable position as a political novel, perhaps the political novel. She discusses Orwell's prescience in depicting our complacency in the face of lost freedoms and the role of technology in surveillance. While this reading is not new, its truth and urgency certainly make it worth repeating. However, watching the production itself, it seems to me that the personal tragedy overwhelms the political. The precipice of mental disintegration is, after all, not unique to whichever society we happen to live in, but is a risk intrinsic in our humanity. So does this inwardly-focussed production do the text a disservice by diminishing its political message? Are horror and political critique incompatible genres? I would say that the novel 1984 is more robust and, to use the word again in a more positive sense, elastic, than its reputation would lead one to expect. There is room inside it for many things. When I first read it as a teenager, I was fascinated and repelled by its depiction of state-sanctioned brutality. Picking it up over a decade later in preparation for this review, I was struck instead by the many precise details of what everyday life looks like in grinding poverty. Humorous, heartbreaking, and sometimes thrillingly familiar, these details imbued even a grim future with irrepressible life. The novel is richer than its ideas, even its most important ideas.
Patenaude has spoken of making a conscious effort to avoid imposing her own personality on the production, saying that “The text is so strong in itself, we didn't want to present some gilded-over version to the public.” Perhaps it is owing this carefulness that such a well-known work still retains the power to surprise. With her staging of 1984, she has unfolded yet another aspect of the text to us, something that is perhaps less easy to encapsulate in a catch-phrase: our fear of losing, not just our freedoms, but our own selves.--Mary Thaler