Big Brother isn’t watching you. You’re watching him.
An acclaimed adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian vision on the future, “1984,” is crossing the Atlantic to make its U.S. debut on the Broad Stage in Santa Monica this month. The London-based Headlong Theatre’s production uses hidden cameras and screens carried by actors or placed onstage to zero in on the cautionary tale of an insidious surveillance state — and to convey the chilling ways Orwell’s story is more prescient today than ever before.
“How do we know what is real? How do we trust our own thoughts?” asks Duncan Macmillan, co-writer and co-director of the Headlong adaptation with Robert Icke. “When Google filters results depending on what we’ve searched for before and disseminates our metadata. When corporations manipulate how you vote, how you think and what you buy. What is this sense of ‘I’? How does advertising influence us?”
Orwell’s “1984,” released in 1949, can be interpreted as a relic of the Cold War. It takes place in Airstrip One (formerly Great Britain), ruled by the superstate Oceania. The political system, run by the Inner Party, is led by the mysterious cult-like figure Big Brother, who uses the language of Newspeak to lord over his subjects. The hallmark of the administration, which presents itself as a benign helper but is really a malignant fascist regime, is an omnipresent eye that punishes individualism and independent thinking as “thoughtcrime.”
What Orwell scholars didn’t see coming, says Michael Shelden, who wrote Orwell’s authorized biography, is the shift of the book’s relevance from a historical document about the dangers of totalitarianism to a parable about the perils of our contemporary surveillance society.
“How could we have known what would happen in the 21st century? Because it started so quickly, and it’s going like wildfire. Most of us don’t understand what’s happening,” says Shelden, who also wrote the program notes for Headlong’s upcoming run of “1984" at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. “It’s fine as long as the people running Google and the government are nice, but what if someone gets in who’s not so nice?”
Who those people might be and who has co-opted “1984" to further their political agenda, reflects the brilliance of the story, Macmillan says.
“It’s so interesting that Orwell’s book has been claimed by the left and the right as the book for them,” he says.
He and Icke kept this in mind as they adapted the book. They employed a framing device based on the book’s often-overlooked appendix, resulting in a more ambiguous telling of the classic tale.
The appendix is written in forbidden Oldspeak, and its last word is penned in 2050. The Party is referred to in past tense. But because the book cautions the reader not to take the written word at face value, the appendix plays a clever trick: It leaves us wondering if what we have seen is true at all.
“The play is in doublethink,” says Macmillan, invoking the Newspeak word for people’s capacity to accept contradictory notions as true. “You follow a really coherent story, but almost like a magician’s trick, you may have seen a very different story than the person you came along with.”
Actor Matthew Spencer concurs. He stars in the stage version as Winston Smith, an employee of the Ministry of Truth who is responsible for rewriting historical documents to reflect the official party line. Smith secretly hates Big Brother and wishes for a rebellion.
“Has it happened? Has it not happened?” Spencer asks about the tumultuous events chronicled in the play. “It’s really fun being onstage and basically screwing with the audience’s minds for the whole 101 minutes.”
The effect can be quite visceral, Spencer says, adding that he is fascinated to see how American audiences will respond to the play.
“We’ve had people shouting, leaving and getting up,” he says. “We get different reactions in different areas.”
Now that the United States is embroiled in another contentious presidential election, with a fear of terrorism and the unknowable “other” driving the conversation, Macmillan and Spencer say there never has been a better time to bring “1984" to American soil.
Orwell is still invoked in coverage of politics and culture. Google “Trump” and “doublethink” and you’ll get 30,800 results. Swap out “Trump” for “Obama” and you’ll get 76,600. Search online for “Big Brother,” “1984" and “American politics” and you’ll probably see a New Yorker article titled “So Are We Living in 1984?” as well as a CNN opinion column that answers “We’re Living in ‘1984' Today.”
“Orwell saw way ahead of his time that surveillance was a constant threat. When you’ve lost your privacy to a government that says it’s only thinking of your safety, you’ve lost something precious,” Orwell scholar Shelden says. “Before the Internet became so pervasive, I don’t think we understood how a switch from an analog to a digital world would make surveillance so easy and widespread.”
Imagine, he says, you leave your house and see someone standing in the front yard recording the time and the car you get into. Then imagine arriving at work and finding the same person there, again, doing the same thing.
“You would call the police,” Shelden says, even though we’re already leaving electronic records of our lives wherever we go. “If I’m doing it, you think I’m a threat because you can see me. But if AT&T or Verizon is doing it, you don’t think it’s a threat because you don’t see it.”
The notion that we would surrender our rights before we realize it — that we would grow to admire the mechanisms of our own oppression — is at the heart of “1984.” The prophetic last line of the book, after all, is, “He loved Big Brother.”
Macmillan says there are few places in our culture where we can effectively explore that kind of complexity. The stage is one. If the play can offer anything to its audience, he says, it’s a space without noise in a world otherwise dominated by mind-numbingly loud and inflammatory discourse.
What would Orwell say about this state of affairs if he were alive today?
The answer is obvious, Shelden says: “I told you so.”
Where: The Eli & Edythe Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica
When: Previews begin Jan. 8, opening night Jan. 13, ends Feb. 6
Info: (310) 434-3200, www.thebroadstage.com
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes (no intermission)