“Big Brother is Watching You”

Interview with Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan (co-creators and directors of Headlong's 1984)


 by Giles Woodforde

Find out more

Now that Edward Snowden has made his allegations about the murky world of widespread electronic surveillance carried out by government agencies, never have these words seemed more scary. Yet the phrase goes way back: it was coined by George Orwell in his novel 1984, first published in 1949.

I met the book in the 1960s when I worked for its hardback publisher, Secker and Warburg. Back then the story of Big Brother, dictator of totalitarian state Oceania, seemed comfortingly remote, even though one of Oceania’s satellite states is Airstrip One – formerly known as Great Britain – and even though principal character Winston Smith lives in London.

Winston works at the Ministry of Truth, where he alters historical records to suit the ruling party’s current doctrine. But surely, I thought, such things could only go on far away in the Soviet Union?

Fast forward to 2014, and a rehearsal room somewhere in London. It’s a hot day, but the atmosphere inside is chilling. Menacing music throbs as armed personnel in gas masks surround a man strapped to a chair. What happens next is not for the squeamish: Winston Smith has been trapped into an act of rebellion, and has been sent to the notorious Room 101 for torture.

Being rehearsed is a new Headlong/Nottingham Playhouse stage adaptation of 1984. During the lunch break, once everyone has had time to unwind a bit, I ask director Robert Icke how he first met the original book.

“I must have read it as a teenager, because I knew it when I came to work on the play. It’s like a Shakespeare, everyone has a print of it in their head, but it’s often nothing to do with what’s actually printed on the page. My journey with Duncan [Macmillan, who has adapted the book for the stage] has been very much to work out what the relationship is between the version everybody thinks they know and what’s actually there. If you discover that the actual is more interesting than your imagined version, then you go ahead. If not, then you don’t.”

“It feels a bit like a punch in the face when you first read the book,” Robert adds. “It’s got a visceral impact, which oddly does some disservice to the detail in the book. Everyone finds it difficult to extract proper political argument from it, and everyone thinks it agrees with them.”

I mention to Robert that in the 1960s I thought that 1984 was about the Soviet Union – all very alarming, but nothing to do with this country.

“That’s right. 1984 is seen as a great book of the political right that says we should celebrate Englishness, we should conserve the things that make England great. You really feel that when you end up in an antique shop and they’re talking about tea and jam, and things. But the political left proclaimed 1984 as a great book against totalitarianism and fascism.

“But when you get past that, wow, the horror of things like the torture somehow blindsides you a bit to the detail, and it’s quite difficult to come out of the book with a definite sense of what it’s about and what it is trying to do. For me that’s why 1984 is so much more interesting than Orwell’s Animal Farm, where the argument is really clear, and you can join up all the dots. You can’t join the dots with this, it’s much more complicated.”

Headlong’s 1984 includes an Appendix printed at the back of the book. It’s the first time the Appendix – which deals with Newspeak, the official language of Oceania – has been used to frame a stage version of the book.

“We read a letter that Orwell wrote after 1984 had gone to its American publishers,” Robert explains. “The Americans asked him to make major cuts, including the Appendix, which Orwell saw as essential. Once we read that letter, and saw the Appendix, it became very clear that the complexity of the novel rests on the fact that you’re not allowed to rely on things. So if you just take everything in the novel for granted, and put that on stage in three dimensions, you’re doing people a disservice – you are not giving them the same experience as people who carefully read the novel and its Appendix.”

But, of course, there’s a whole extra dimension now. The internet, and the opportunities it presents for snooping into people’s private lives, didn’t exist when Orwell wrote 1984.

“Orwell is brilliantly vague about the technology involved,” Robert says. “We had lots of ideas about this originally: we watched The Lives of Others, a film about the monitoring of East Berlin by agents of the Stasi, the GDR's secret police. You watch the guys with the headphones and the telephone switchboard. We had a Lives of Others version at one time, which inverted the novel, so you wouldn’t watch Winston, you’d watch the people who watched Winston all the way through. That would be great for a while, but it would kill the drama of it when you got to a crucial moment.

“But Orwell just says that they might be watching you – they might be watching everybody, all the time. It’s brilliant, because you’re placed in the same zone as us -  not quite knowing whether what we see is trustworthy. There’s no better time than now to think about surveillance, and what it means.”

As Robert returns to his rehearsal, I ask him if he feels Orwell looking down from above, and saying: “I told you so!”

“Of course I do. But what’s difficult at times is to know exactly what he’s trying to tell you.” 

by Giles Woodforde

1984 is a Headlong, Nottingham Playhouse and Almeida Theatre Co-Production.
Running at the Citizens Theatre Fri 29 Aug - Sat 6 Sep