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Brief Encounter With ... Blind Summit

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When Blind Summit announced they were taking over Battersea Arts Centre this Christmas, we knew it would be something special. And true to form, the masters of puppetry are back, not with pantomime, but a disturbing new production of George Orwell's 1984.

It sounds like the perfect trio of company, venue and show. Nick Barnes and Mark Down performed their first ever piece (Mr China’s Son) at BAC in 1993, before using the scratch process to develop their cult hit, Low Life, which saw its final performance in June.

Now, after high-profile collaborations with the likes of Complicite, Birmingham Rep and the late Anthony Minghella on his spectacular Madama Butterfly at ENO and the Met, the company present their own take on Orwell’s dystopia, 60 years after its first publication. Eschewing the modern digital technology it so accurately predicted, the production will use only cardboard props, live actors and – it goes with saying – puppetry.

Director Mark Down joins us to discuss life, love, politics and banning the word ‘puppet’ from the rehearsal room.

So, Mark, Blind Summit and BAC go back a long way.
Yes, and this show actually came about through a suggestion from David (Jubb, BAC artistic director) while we were doing Low Life here three years ago. We were on our second run at BAC and we all sat down for a bit of a talk. As soon as David suggested 1984, I thought: “That would be a good idea.” We wanted to do something political and we wanted to tackle a big text. We were getting good audiences for Low Life, but it was still in essence a small show because puppetry and Bukowski are both relatively cult things. We wanted something that could reach out a bit further.

How challenging was it to adapt Orwell and a narrative that’s so internalised?
A total bloody nightmare! Our starting point was realising that the puppet in the story is language. That’s what Newspeak is: the manipulation of language. We’d always enjoyed doing things where we wrote words on placards so we came up with the idea of doing a play within the play, performed by an agitprop company. They are telling the tale of a thought criminal to their comrades, which allows them to know and say what Winton’s thinking. But the biggest difficulty for us was showing a relationship in a society where relationships are banned

Is love a central theme? The poster shows a puppet and performer on the point of embrace – a controversial image in itself.
We built the whole story around the love affair between Winston and Julia, or ‘Criminal Winston Smith’ and his ‘Whore Love Julia’ as they are within the agitprop play. I think the book is a million things. But at the heart of the book is love. Orwell wrote it when he was dying and it’s very much a meditation on life and death. On having spent your life writing and on what part that plays. To Orwell, the ultimate totalitarianism is death. The awful thing going back to the book is realising how much more is there than in our show. But George is very much in what we’re doing.

Is is true you banned puppets from the rehearsal room?
Low Life was an exercise in seeing what the puppets could do and what we could do with the puppets. Every decision was focused on making the puppetry better, stronger and more exciting. This was a different starting point. We were starting with a story. So initially I banned the word ‘puppet’. We’d got to a point where people were talking about the “Blind Summit thing”. It was crucial to move away from that. Then again, I have heard people coming out of this show saying: “I was expecting more puppets.” Which is kind of weird, having spent years trying to persuade people to take puppets seriously! Low Life is still available for all good weddings and bar mitzvahs.

How much of a team effort is 1984?
That’s been the biggest pleasure, collaborating with such an amazing team of people: Chris Branch on the music, Chahine Yavroyan on the lighting and Dulcie Best, who’s done the costumes. These are all people we’ve known for a while and what’s fun is working together, this time with a script. The actors have been involved on and off. I first started talking to Simon Scardifield, who plays Winston, at a Christmas party last year and we stated working together in February. We didn’t even have dates for a run at that point.

Did it help touring the show before the main BAC run ?
You learn so much from an audience. We’ve remade about a quarter of the show between Monday and Wednesday. I’ve been watching it every night, miserably piling up little notes.. But we couldn’t work on it on tour – everyone’s exhausted and living in hotel rooms. So we came back and did it this week. Last night was like another first night. In my view, a show is never finished. Or it can be finished but it’s an awful moment when it is. You can always change something.

Much is made of 1984’s relevance to our world today, from Big Brother to CCTV. Have new parallels struck you while working on it?
I’ve lived with the book for so long. I loved it as a kid - I think I read it in about 1983 actually. But it still continues to shock me how brilliant it is. There is something that came out to me in the last week or so. Winston and Julia have two different political positions. Winston believes in an organised political process. He wants to join Goldstein’s brotherhood to plot against the party. But Julia is from another generation and doesn’t remember a time when there was more than one political party. She believes only in personal disobedience and terrorism.

That struck me as the most incredible observation. For my generation, certainly, and the generation below, we really don’t have a choice between political parties. They’re all essentially a management company. We belong to the No Logo world who want personalised politics and a referendum on everything. But the book is also about love and life, just about whatever you want it to be. It questions everything.

After Blind Summit’s high-profile collaborations with Complicite and Anthony Minghella, is it odd being back in your own company?
It’s totally brilliant. It was lovely to collaborate with the most amazing people. But it’s tremendously exciting to put together a team and to bring all that experience to bear and see if we’ve learned anything. We’ve learned a little. But it’s funny – I’m used to turning up to a rehearsal room with a puppet and doing what I’m told. Realising I’m the one who has to decide still feels strange. 

1984 runs at Battersea Arts Centre from 2-23 December and from 4-9 January, excluding Sundays. More details here


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