Review – ‘1984’ adaptation for the Italian stage: not a play about the past, but about us, now

1984
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Emilia Romagna Teatro has produced this stage adaptation of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984 (Nineteen Eighty-Four). The play is directed by Matthew Lenton, Artistic Director of Vanishing Point, a multi-award winning theatre company based in Glasgow, Scotland. The play is performed in Italian by young talented actors. As we all know, Italian politics and Big Brother have gone together quite well in the last decades, so in this review I will keep an eye on Italian society and point out the surprising similarities between the text and our contemporary society.

Introduction: 1984 the novel and contemporary western societies – why Italy is a privileged observatory to appreciate Orwell’s astonishing predictions.

 

One of the very first questions I was asked at the 2015 London Book Fair presentation of my non-fiction book Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy was why I had included in my work a chapter titled Every line tells a story: dystopian novelists saw it coming, a section dedicated to the works of the British and American so-called ‘dystopian writers’. My answer was simple: “They clearly foresaw what today is happening as far as democracy in Western countries is concerned. Those anti-utopian novels are all set in a future society which has developed the worst tendencies of capitalism. These works of art portray a society ruled by Big Business, legal or illegal, which is to say dominated by what in the real world are multinational corporations and by their brand philosophy that imposes a standard lifestyle to the planet based on implanted needs and profit. They describe a society that has reached almost perfection in mind manipulation and control through the media; a society whose public representatives, being actually appointed by Big Business and not by citizens, are ready to carry on the policies ordered by the multinationals, a political caste soaked in corruption and privileges whose main aim is to maintain social stability and erase dissent. These writers foresaw that it is the concentration of the political, economic and media powers in the same hands and the development of technology that would allow tomorrow’s –  today’s, actually – only apparently democratic societies to exist. For the last 20 years, Italy has been a privileged observatory of these negative tendencies of modern capitalism, of the erosion of some democratic principles. In the so-called the Berlusconi ventennio, many things imagined by Orwell came true, or at least are clearly linked. This happened because our former Prime Minister is the very symbol of that concentration powers in one single person, a fact that has created the greatest conflicts of interests in the Western World: his almost complete control of all Italian information became a Weapon of Mass Deception that turned viewers into faithful voters, his laws ad-personam made him almost untouchable by the Judicial Power and favoured his business and financial activities in an unfair game. When one faces a leader like this, who is the emblem of corruption, of disrespect for the law, of the liaison organized crime – politics, of immoral behaviour, one could not stop seeing the moustachioed face of Big Brother behind that face”. The first two books I quote in Every picture…. are, of course, Brave New World by A. Huxley (1932) and Nineteen Eighty-Four by G. Orwell (1948). Later in his life, Huxley would describe the loveless, hi-tech, mind-controlling, scaring society of his novel as a dictatorship without tears… producing a kind of painless concentration camp for entire societies, so that people will in fact have their liberties taken away from them, but will rather enjoy it, because they will be distracted from any desire to rebel by propaganda or brainwashing… and this seems to be the final revolution. On the other hand, 1984’s tyranny still needed a good deal of violence to keep its social structure intact. Like Brave New World, 1984 is a novel that portrays most aspects of our contemporary world and I think that a young reader who approaches this text for the very first time should be shocked by the visionary quality of the author. 1984 is one of those books I could not put down when I read it for the first time in my university days and that I could not stop teaching ever since I re-read it in the nineties. Let us remember that Orwell was not only describing the totalitarian Nazi and Communist regimes of the post-War War II period; he was indeed also describing the capitalistic societies of his days. When I met the director of this play after the show, I asked him with false innocence: “Why have you chosen Italy for the staging of this play?” He said he had just had this job opportunity and that was it, so I told him I would write this post on the Big Brotherish Italian society. Having said this, I approached the play with a mixture of expectations and fear: it is not an easy task to stage such a novel, filled with social items that can not be omitted in order to give the viewer an organic picture and which need the slow pace of reading to be fully understood. 

The play: the age of uniformity, the age of solitude, the age of Big Brother, the age of doublethink. Then and now. 

 

The stage is quite simple, almost bare, but today’s technology allows the director to show a mega TV screen with a big eye always watching us. This visual development of the original telescreen of the novel, always present, reminds us that political control over the actions and thoughts of each individual is the main issue of the play. The plot of the novel is basically maintained and the most important features that characterize Orwell’s work are there, a kind of excursus over 1984‘s key ideas. The only new feature is the introduction of a narrator, a voice-over which is both omniscient, guiding the spectator through the different episodes and explaining the inner thoughts of the protagonist, and internal, telling us Winston’s feelings, ideas and reactions, giving him advice, as he goes through the parable of political consciousness, rebellion, love, capture, torture and annihilation.

In the beginning, Winston is there, in his lonely house, the telescreen behind his shoulders, trying to do the first of his forbidden actions, the writing of a diary, a book of memoirs that the State can not tolerate in its attempt to cancel reality and the dangerous past. The telescreen, that is both a screen that gives out never-ending propaganda and a camera that controls each person, is one of Orwell’s greatest ideas. Political propaganda through the media is everywhere in the world today, but a Prime Minster owner of all the media, like the one we had in Italy, is Orwell’s dream come true. In my country private and public media politically governed have produced not only political propaganda but also a series of trash entertainment programmes that transformed the watchers in the best buyers of the political ideological merchandise of the owner. Soon in the play we watch Winston at work, at the Ministry of Truth, where he has to rewrite history to justify the present. Is there much difference between this process and the continuous production of fake news, alteration of facts that Italian private television and some newspapers have scientifically made in the recent past? And, on a world scale, how about an American president, twitter addicted, that gives out serial fake news because he knows pretty well that in the post-truth age this is the way to get consent? After E. Snowden’s revelations on the NSA surveillance programme in 2013 and the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal, we all know for sure that we are constantly watched by a contemporary Big Brother and that our stolen data are used against ourselves and our free will. Social media are the modern telescreen too, with a little revealing difference. The telescreen could not be turned off, the social media could, but we just don’t do it because we have been brainwashed, mind controlled, we have developed an addiction to them, with the paradoxical effect that we are the ones who keep our servitude going in our contemporary psychological concentration camp.

As the play proceeds, tension is well built on the dark stage: the daily ‘two-minute hate’ unfold abruptly with its rage explosion against the prefabricated arch-enemies of Big Brother, Goldenstein and his subversive ‘Brotherhood’, responsible of all the crimes and problems in the world and a good excuse to maintain a permanent war, a great instrument to take away liberties and channel people’s rage in the wrong directions. How many ‘two-minute hate’ have I seen in everyday political life in my country? What about Berlusconi labelling as ‘communist’ whatsoever is in contrasts with his interests, for example defining the Magistracy as Red Brigades terrorists every single day during his rule because they did not surrender to the idea that he had to be above the law? In fact, all the Premier’s crimes the magistrates were trying to investigate were just another Goldenstein-like plot against his power. How many Goldensteins have we had in the recent past, Bin Laden, the Talebans, the ISIS warriors, the Muslim terrorists, real criminals so useful to the Western conservative societies and their pre-emptive wars?

The key item of the creation of a new language, Newspeak, to narrow the range of thought, destroy literature, memories and feelings is put centre stage in the adaptation. Today we have the contemporary versions of Newspeak, obtained with the pauperization of the national languages made by the traditional media, the social media and by the death of reading habits. Besides, the use of ‘World English’ for business and communication throughout the planet has given birth to a modern version of Esperanto, poor in vocabulary, simple in grammar, very denotative which limits the conveying of articulated thought, just like Newspeak. 

We feel a lot of sympathy for Winston who romantically believes that ‘if there’s hope, it is in the Proles’. Winston tries in vain to make them remember the way the world was before Ingsoc (English Socialism, the name of the current regime)  and does not want to surrender to the idea that the Proles are now just ghosts unable to rebel, like the majority of the oppressed population today, everywhere. In our times they have become, alas, suicidally conservative, populists to use today’s word, embracing far-right parties in their vain hope for revenge, a dangerous de jà vù we saw in the 1930s. In my country they gave their support to Berlusconi’s party, Forza Italia, in the stupid hope that they one day could be rich, famous, powerful and corrupt like their leader.

In a society where love is forbidden because the energy that brings can be used for rebellion, the tragic affair Winston has with Julia takes the two lovers directly to the re-education centre, to the cares of the false rebel O’Brien, the villain, the Inner Party member who, in the third part of the novel, becomes the physical and psychological torturer, the ‘reeducator’, to definitely bring Winston back to orthodoxy. Here O’Brien becomes Orwell’s mouthpiece, revealing Winston the inner secrets and aims of the society he incarnates. Winston learns that those who control the present control the past, and those who control the past control the future, the main assumption of Big Brother’s society to keep power indefinitely. Physical torture will make Winston accept the fact that two and two can make five, but it is only in the famous Room 101 scene that O’Brien obtains a final victory over Winston’s thoughts. This climax is visually the best on stage: physical torture gives the audience a sense of pain and the Room 101 scene transmits a real sense of anxiety because the ultimate physical and psychological torture that takes place there is implied. On stage, in fact, Thought Police cops are pointing their flashlights towards the audience so we cannot see what’s going on behind. Winston’s final surrender, his transformation into an alcoholic amoeba, is only told by the narrator before the final curtain. 

As Orwell reminds us, the patrols did not matter, however. Only the Thought Police mattered. Not only in today’s dictatorships we have a secret police ready to spot and erase dissent, but even in the Western democracies the social engineers and the thought manufacturers at politicians’ service are indeed a modern version of the Thought Police.

At the end of the play I had the feeling that justice had been done to Orwell’s text. The challenge was not easy, but I must say that the script and the performance were able to convey most of the author’s inconvenient message. As I said in the beginning, a 1.45-hour play cannot be as clear and comprehensive as the original novel, but it can be considered a first approach to Orwell’s works and a stimulus to go back to the original text. As the play ended, the screens of mobile phones soon flashed to underline, unequivocally, that this play is not about the past, it is about us, now. And Winston’s final salutation in his secret hand-written diary can be our own as well: from the age of uniformity, from the age of solitude, from the age of Big Brother, from the age of doublethink — greetings!

Post Scriptum:

The influence of 1984 on my work has been so profound that it inspired the darkest novel I have ever written, Dark City. If director Lenton is looking for a sequel, my novel is there, for hire, before the Thought Police vaporize it.

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