Brief Encounter With ... Orwell Adapter Dominic Cavendish
Date: 8 June 2009
Daily Telegraph critic Dominic Cavendish made his playwriting – and producing – debut with his adaptation of George Orwell’s 1939 novel Coming Up for Air, which received strong reviews when it had its world premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe last August. The one-man show, performed by Hal Cruttenden, is now the centrepiece of Orwell - A Celebration, a month-long festival of the novelist’s work opening this week at the West End’s Trafalgar Studios, coinciding with the 60th anniversary of the publication of Orwell’s best-known novel, Nineteen Eighty-four. At the Telegraph, Cavendish is deputy to chief critic Charles Spencer. He is also the founding editor of the critical podcasting website Theatrevoice.com.
What's the significance of the timing of Orwell - A Celebration?
There are two major Orwell anniversaries this week that I felt warranted marking with a month-long celebration - and which, thanks to some very hard-working producers and some really benevolent supporters, has come to fruition. The one that’s most in the public eye is the 60th anniversary of Nineteen Eighty-Four on 8 June, but there’s also the 70th anniversary of Coming Up for Air on Friday 12 June. That lesser-known novel was written against the backdrop of looming global conflict - and was published a few months before Britain joined battle with Germany. Together the books give a strong sense of the mood before and after the Second World War and one reason I felt the festival should happen now is that the generation that lived through, and fought through, that war-shattered time won’t be around - at least in such numbers - a decade hence.
Why should George Orwell be celebrated on stage in particular?
Theatres are a good place for people to get together and focus their attention for a short while. I wonder how many of us would have time to dust down our copies of Orwell’s novels and read them just at the prompting of an anniversary. But ‘why the theatre in particular?’ is a good question because adaptations of his work are not that often staged despite his being so well-known. Nineteen Eighty-Four has been seen here and there - and of course been filmed many times. And the National Theatre under Sir Peter Hall famously did Animal Farm in 1984. The Catalan director Calixto Bieito staged A Homage to Catalonia at the West Yorkshire Playhouse five years ago, to very mixed reviews. But given that he wrote something like two million words in his career, Orwell doesn’t crop up that often - which might suggest that his work is resistant to theatricalisation.
Yet so much of his writing has an extraordinary conversational directness about it not to mention a memorable wit and a succinct poetic richness. I’d argue that a good deal of it cries out to be spoken aloud. Coming Up for Air, for example, is written in the form of a monologue. Orwell went to the theatre in London a lot - he was an industrious theatre reviewer too. In his early youth he tried his hand at writing plays and he later adapted work for the radio. It’s interesting to speculate whether, if he hadn’t died at the age of 46 he would have written for other media. One motivation for putting four pieces of his writing together is to ask a question about British theatre’s indirect debt to him. Sarah Kane acknowledged the influence of Nineteen Eighty-Four on her play Cleansed, but I’d say it’s there too, if you want to look, in Harold Pinter and Edward Bond. Back in May 1949, the theatre in London was being treated to Christopher Fry’s verse drama The Lady’s Not for Burning while on the page Orwell was conjuring a brutal interrogation scene in a terrifying police state forged in the aftermath of atomic wars. You can’t help noticing that Beckett, Pinter and Osborne arrive in the wake of that.
What are the programme highlights? Why should people come see it?
The first half of the evening is my monologue adaptation of Coming Up for Air which premiered at the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh last August. This is the first time the London stage has seen an adaptation of the book, I‘m told, which is one reason for people to check it out. If there’s a single compelling reason, though, I’d say it’s Hal Cruttenden’s performance as the put-upon insurance-man George Bowling. He really impressed the critics in Edinburgh - and one reviewer used the phrase ’tour de force’ which I reckon isn’t far off. He’s a comedian by trade so he knows how to bring out the humour in Orwell’s writing but he also takes the audience on a journey back in time to the 1930s and also to the start of the 20th century, when the character reminisces about his Edwardian childhood. It’s universal stuff - about memory, ageing, regret - all mingled in with a distinctive political atmosphere.
The second half is entirely new for London - two of Orwell’s finest journalistic essays from the 1930s, Shooting an Elephant and A Hanging, which were born out of his experiences as a policeman in Burma in the 1920s. And then the evening rounds off with a distillation of the Ministry of Love interrogation scenes from Nineteen Eighty-Four. There’s no record, again, of these essays being presented in a theatrical context before and there’s nowhere else in London you’re going to see stage performances of Nineteen Eighty-Four this summer. But, as with Hal’s performance, so I’m hoping that Alan Cox and Ben Porter, both very fine actors, will be reason in themselves for people to want to see the second half of the evening. From what I’ve seen in rehearsals, Cox is going to be terrifying as O’Brien. I should add that the Orwell Prize will also be organising a series of debates every Saturday at the Trafalgar Studios after the matinee show. They’re getting some amazing speakers to take part. There won’t be this level of Orwell-related activity for a while again. And it’s for a good cause - profits will go to the Orwell Prize and the human rights group Liberty.
Why did you want to adapt Orwell's Coming Up for Air in the first place?
It all came to me incredibly suddenly and within only a few weeks of the Edinburgh Fringe programme deadline last year. I’d re-read the novel, having read it years ago in adolescence, and I was struck by how pertinent it felt to the times we’re living in. I think a lot of people, struggling with the recession and the gloom of this decade, have wanted to ‘come up for air’ as George Bowling does. I could see Hal Cruttenden in the role and I just thought: why not? What’s to stop me - apart from the usual fear of abject failure?
What was your experience of mounting it first at last year's Edinburgh Fringe?
From a creative point of view it was a very happy experience, because I found in Gene David Kirk, a director who’s now running the Jermyn Street Theatre, someone who ’got’ the whole project from day one. Didn’t care that I was a critic, didn’t worry that Hal spent most of his time as a comic. He just got the job done incredibly well, incredibly quickly. From a practical point of view, as a producer, dealing with a lot of mundane logistics, it was a real ‘grit your teeth and watch them crack under the pressure’ kind of experience. It seemed to rain continuously and viciously throughout the festival, driving audience-numbers down, dampening spirits - and I wouldn’t put myself through it again in a hurry. That said, I got off lightly compared with those producers who were reliant on the Fringe box office, which went into meltdown. And most of my time was taken up with reviewing and so on for the Telegraph - so I was surprised, in a way, by how manageable it was. Now that I can look back on it with some kind of detachment it all seems quite entertaining - but then the pressure’s on again, in a different form, now we’re in London.
What key lessons did you learn at the Fringe?
Don’t panic when the first review you get is 30 words of bile. Don’t get fazed when passers-by recoil in disgust when you try to hand them a flyer. Don’t assume that the people you’ve paid to flyer your show will do that. Keep naïve optimism to a minimum, charm to a maximum. Good word-of-mouth is box-office gold. Critics are an incredibly fair-minded bunch.
Has your experience in creating and producing a play changed your perspective of the theatre industry? And particularly, has it altered your own approach as a critic?
I’m far more appreciative at a gut-level of just how much work goes into bringing work to the stage - how much of a collective effort it all is. And I’d always regarded that business about first-night nerves as a kind of self-indulgence, but nerves do get racked by the experience - it’s an incredibly exposing business. You’ve got to toughen yourself up to it. In a way, the worlds of theatre and journalism have far more in common with each other than is usually assumed - they both entail throwing things together at high speed. In terms of informing my ‘eye’ as a critic, I think it’s been invaluable. It’s made me think a lot more about the relationship between the director and the writer, about the way actors go about finding the right tone in performance, about how space can be used very subtly to huge effect. And much more - far more than I can articulate in one go.
You're the second critic this year to have a play in the West End. Are we witnessing a trend? And are you, like Nicholas de Jongh, tempted to forge a new career out of playwriting?
I think it’s a blip. I’d like to remind and reassure the public that this is just one show out of hundreds that the London stage will be subjected to this year. Orwell’s the bloke who deserves the main credit if it all goes swimmingly. And if it does go swimmingly, I’m still more than occupied and privileged by my ‘day’ job as a critic for the foreseeable future. Which isn’t to say that I don’t have lots of ideas cooking away - but then, who doesn’t?
Do you think critics get an easier or tougher ride when they open a show?
I’m sure some people think it’s easier, because there’s a pack mentality of ‘support your own’ - but really the pack can turn on one of its own in a flash. That said, I don’t think the harsh criticism would be any harsher. Out there, I suppose there’s an element of ‘who does he think he is?’ - if you think of ‘critic’ as somehow antithetical to ‘creative’, which I don’t. Some critics might feel that they’re being put into an uncomfortable position, which is why I wouldn’t make a habit of doing this. But critics have nothing to gain by pulling their punches. If they don’t like it, I’m sure they’ll tell their readers. And I’ll have to take it on the chin, just as everyone else in the theatre world does - all the time.
Orwell - A Celebration runs from 10 June to 4 July 2009 (previews from 8 June) at the West End’s Trafalgar Studios 2. For more information, visit the festival website at www.orwellcelebration.org.