Balagula play explores the essence of Orwell's '1984'

rcopley@herald-leader.comMarch 6, 2014 

  • IF YOU GO

    '1984'

    What: Balagula Theatre's production of Michael Gene Sullivan's stage adaptation of George Orwell's novel.

    When: 8 p.m. March 9-12, 16-19

    Where: Natasha's Bistro and Bar, 112 Esplanade

    Tickets: $20 and $15. Available at 1-888-927-4850 or Balagula.com.

    Notes:

    ■ The March 10 performance is a pay-what-you-can performance, at the door only, depending on seat availability.

    ■ There will be a question-and-answer session with the cast and crew after the March 11 performance.

Balagula Theatre director Natasha Williams says she enjoys watching news media and commentators invoking terms like "Big Brother" and "2+2=5" in discussing issues like government surveillance and similar topics that have dominated international discussions lately.

"He we are, we chose to do 1984, and the whole world is working to promote our play," Williams says.

She notes a recently revealed program in which the British Government Communications Headquarters in England gathered and stored millions of webcam images from people not suspected of wrongdoing.

"I thought, this is really Big Brother watching and even using the screen," Williams says. "It's very Orwellian."

The terms "Orwellian" and "Big Brother" have been stuck in our national consciousness for decades because George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm have for so long been a part many high school English curricula.

With 1984, first published in 1949, Orwell created a future world that at the time sounded horrifying: cameras and microphones everywhere watching people's every move. Individualism and independent thought are outlawed for the greater good.

Williams says she has been shocked, particularly since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to see how willing people are to allow a growing surveillance culture in the name of safety, creating a world that looks more and more like 1984's fictional superstate of Oceania.

The central character, Winston Smith, has the job of rewriting history books and news reports to conform to the government's narrative. But he dreams of rebellion and is eventually caught by the Thought Police while carrying on an affair with Julia, a woman who also wants to rebel.

That is where Michael Gene Sullivan's stage adaptation of the novel starts, which fascinated Williams and Balagula co-director Ryan Case.

Some of the themes of 1984, such as sacrificing privacy for security, were echoed in Balagula's previous play, Terrorism, but Williams and Case say they started thinking about staging Orwell's book when their company did Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 in 2012.

"We got a script, the old script, and we didn't like it," Williams says. "It was very dated, and really just an illustration of the storyline in the book. There is philosophy and psychology in the book, but the script was just the story."

It was Case who came across the new adaptation by Sullivan. Case said he read that Sullivan's 1984 script was being workshopped in Europe and "I contacted the playwright and asked if I could read the script.

"When we finally read it, it was a relief to read that it was intelligent and creative, and it was unique in the way it interpreted Orwell's storyline."

The play takes place in Winston's interrogation, and scenes from the book are presented by Interrogators playing scenes from his life and his "crime" in front of him. The dynamic presents interesting acting challenges, particularly for Case and Tim Hull, who plays the Interrogator.

If there are students studying 1984 now, Case and Williams say it would be interesting for them to see how the book and play "echo each other," Williams says. "But if they just see the play, it will become obvious very quickly that they have not read the book."

One thing the Balagula artists really like about the play is that it gets back to the essence of the book.

"It moved from high-brow philosophy and psychology into popular culture," Williams says. "Popular culture tends to strip complex things from their complexity so that it becomes simplistic; 1984 unfortunately exists in the mind of a lot of people in that simplistic form of 'that's a book about government surveillance.' 'That's a book about government oppression.'

"But the play takes you back to what the book originally was, which actually was what happens in the human brain and human thinking and the dichotomy between conviction and doubt, dedication and loyalty and free thinking. And it's not about a specific political system, but it's the criticism of all political systems and all rigid systems of belief.

"Mostly, it's the story of how a goal does not justify the means."

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Twitter: @copiousnotes. Blog: copiousnotes.bloginky.com.

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