Orwell - A Celebration, conceived by Daily Telegraph drama critic Dominic Cavendish, arrives at the West End’s Trafalgar Studios in time for two major anniversaries of Orwell’s novels: the 70th anniversary of the publication of Coming up for Air and the 60th for his most renowned masterpiece Nineteen Eighty Four.
Both figure in the evening of theatre which comprises stagings of four Orwell pieces in total: 1939’s Coming up for Air, adapted and premiered by Cavendish at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, dramatisations of Orwell’s essays Shooting an Elephant and A Hanging, and a distillation of Nineteen Eighty Four’s horrifying Ministry of Love interrogation scene.
In Coming up for Air, an overweight insurance salesman George Bowling (brilliantly played by comedian Hal Cruttenden) returns to his boyhood town where he discovers the idyllic fishing pond he remembered so well is now filled with tin cans. George’s words “Nothing’s real in Elsmere Road” precedes this discovery but also foretell the transformation that society endured at the end of the Second World War.
Shooting an Elephant is a study of cowardice and forsaken morality. When a colonialist policeman (played by Ben Porter, beautifully adopting the rhyme and meter of the age) stationed in old Burma is forced to confront a working elephant, he succumbs to the crowd’s “two thousand wills forcing me to do it” and fires, mortally wounding the animal. Especially memorable is the line “he wears a mask and his face grows to fit it”, which jolted me so hard I sprayed my red wine all over the people either side. Just as unsettling is A Hanging, delivered by Alan Cox in a cool, unabashed fashion and concluding with chilling laughter as the victim swings in the background.
In the way that other wartime British authors such as Nevil Shute did, Orwell demonstrated both a nostalgia for a quieter pre-mechanical age and a simultaneous awe for the aggressive machinery of 20th-century war and “progress”. He charted man’s struggle to survive in an ever bleaker, less humane world. And in this theatrical mini-fest, the ingredients that we’ve come to identify as “Orwellian” – oppression, state tyranny, the destruction of free will and the resilience (or not) of courage – are all on striking display.
Aside from the anniversaries, is the timing of Orwell - A Celebration important? Director of Liberty Shami Chakrabarti, writing in the programme, asserts that Orwell would have “railed at the anti-privacy culture of recent years” (and, presumably he wouldn’t have been too happy about a certain reality TV show either). That may be, but whether or not you personally buy into the idea that Orwell’s work captures the political zeitgeist of our own time, in a sense, doesn’t matter.
This festival in his honour is more than a milestone homage: it’s a brilliant evening of high-octane performance and uncomfortable storytelling that holds an unforgiving mirror up to the audience.